At Eternity’s Gate is to the painter, Vincent Van Gogh, what the paintings in the movie are to his own: an atrocity.
I’ve been excited to see this movie for a long time, mostly because it stars Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh. The only actor that might have been more fun to cast in the role is Christopher Walken. True, even Dafoe is too old to play Van Gogh, as Willem was over 60 in the film, and Vincent died at the tragic age of 37. Walken is 75, so he would have had to play the role a few decades ago. When I say fun to cast, that’s all I mean. I don’t mean the best or more appropriate, which would have been an unknown actor.
I was very wary going in, because, the director is Julien Schnabel, and his movie about Basquiat was a disaster [you can read my review here: Schnabel’s Basquiat a Basket Case]. The problem with virtually every movie I’ve seen about an artist, is that the artist is portrayed as completely socially inept, emotionally immature, and with no sense of humor at all. Schnabel likes to throw in pathetic as well. The worse failing of his Basquiat film was including himself in it as the infinitely more mature, talented, brilliant, grounded, and successful artist extraordinaire.
Schnabel’s got a towering ego on him, boy howdy! I knew the movie was going to be bombast, and probably cringe-worthy, but I gave Schnabel the benefit of the doubt, doubting instead my own preconceived ideas about him and early conclusions. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe Schnabel has improved with time. Nope.
Schnabel portrays Vincent as a pathetic lunatic. Vincent sees angels and is possessed by an evil hobgoblin that temporarily stationed itself in his ear, and that’s why he cut it off. It’s so agonizingly clichéd I think I would have rolled my eyes if I saw this when I was still in my teens.
While watching this, I had to ask myself WHY?! WHY did Schnabel do this?! It could have been Defoe’s best role ever, and as a fellow artist who presumably has a good eye and understands Van Gogh, Schnabel would certainly humanize Van Gogh and try to get at the real complexity of his art, avoiding milking the crap out of the sensationalist content. Instead, he exaggerated even that.
Schnabel shows Vincent being unstrapped from a straight jacket immediately before being released from the St. Paul’s Asylum in Saint-Rémy. A straitjacket?! I’ve done a lot of research on Van Gogh over the decades, as he’s been in my top three favorite artists since I was around 18. I’ve read his letters, a psychological biography, and a few art books, as well as seen documentaries and read various articles. I don’t remember anything about him being in a straitjacket. My memory isn’t perfect, or anywhere close to it, so, I went ahead and looked this up.
According to this article in Artnet:
The institutionalization was voluntary, and unlike many asylums of the time, Saint-Paul eschewed the use of straight jackets, refusing to chain up its patients or employ other cruel practices.
I guess this never happened:
Why exaggerate? And why insult our intelligence? Vincent made one of his most famous paintings within days of being admitted to St. Pauls, the Irises:
A modestly perspicacious person might wonder how he painted it while in a straitjacket.
In order to ramp up the insane asylum gloom, Schnabel included a bizarre scene with a madman besides Vincent, in some sort of tub with restraints for forcible washing. I think the visual might be more persuasive here:
This guy makes Anthony Hopkins look tame in Silence of the Lambs. Nothing to do with reality, just completely extraneous and unnecessary shock schlock.
Another bizarre exaggeration, which hurt my eyes, is the color Schnabel chose for Vincent’s yellow house. Van Gogh had described it, and painted it, as a buttery yellow, but Schnabel uses a nauseating acid yellow.
Even the inside of Vincent’s bedroom is bile yellow.
In one of his most famous paintings it was blue:
Maybe that’s not the bedroom in the screenshot I took, and maybe Vincent changed the color of the walls in his painting. OK, but according to Vincent himself, the inside was whitewashed, and not thus uniformly bile yellow:
“My house here is painted the yellow colour of fresh butter outside with raw green shutters; it stands in the full sunlight on a square which has a green garden with plane trees, oleanders and acacias. And it is completely whitewashed inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it the intensely blue sky. There I can live and breathe, think and paint.”
When Vincent places one of his sunflower paintings on the yellow wall in the movie, it clashes horribly. I gather this is all part of making the madman extra cuckoo. I can’t say there’s a moment in the film where Vincent is sane.
Even when he’s out in the fields painting he has to take a break to throw himself on the ground, crumble dirt in his face, and taste it, all, I gather, in order to get in touch with the land:
All of this dehumanizes Vincent, who was much more often sane and hard-working. His letters tell far more the truth. Here’s one from 1883:
I carry on as one unknowing but who knows this one thing — ‘I must finish a particular work within a few years’ — I needn’t rush myself, for that does no good — but I must carry on working in calm and serenity, as regularly and concentratedly as possible, as succinctly as possible. I’m concerned with the world only in that I have a certain obligation and duty, as it were — because I’ve walked the earth for 30 years — to leave a certain souvenir in the form of drawings or paintings in gratitude. Not done to please a certain taste in art, but to express a sincere human feeling.
Here’s a man who is struggling, but not frothing at the mouth.
Here’s some of his last letter to his parents:
I myself am quite absorbed in that immense plain with wheat fields up as far as the hills, boundless as the ocean, delicate yellow, delicate soft green, the delicate purple of a tilted and weeded piece of ground, with the regular speckle of the green of flowering potato plants, everything under a sky of delicate tones of blue, white, pink, and violet. I am in a mood of almost too much calm, just the mood needed for painting this.
Calm?! What?! Van Gogh working calmly, in a mood of almost too much calm? I thought he slashed at the canvas in a state of hysteria. The maniac in the movie probably couldn’t finish a single coherent canvas. The real Vincent, it may disappoint many, was probably far more normal, intelligent, and composed than the legend. His letters suggest a completely different person, and it’s his own voice.
This is his last note to his brother:
I try to be fairly good humored in general, but my life is too threatened at its very root and my step is unsteady too . . . [There] are vast stretches of corn under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness . . . For myself, I can only say at the moment that I think we all need rest . . . And the prospect grows darker. I see no happy future at all.
We know at this point he was at the end of his rope, if not in terms of his ability to cope, in terms of the length of his life (as there is speculation he didn’t shoot himself, but was shot by someone else and covered up for it). Still, at the very end, he was trying to be good humored?! He’s never good humored, or anywhere near it, in the biopic.
Let’s get into the bad painting
Probably the worse thing you could do in a bio of an artist is make his art look like shit. My hopes the movie would deliver were crushed in the first minutes, as Vincent produced this utter atrocity.
WHAT’S THAT! Let’s get closer:
Huh?! Did Vincent paint one section at a time? And did he use pure white like that?
Remember the Manga tree root painting. Here, we see Vincent just picking a spot and painting away, but in that one it looks much more like he laid out the composition in a flat cartoon style before building up the impasto:
I guess you’re not supposed to notice little contradictions like that.
Let’s see the finished shoes:
Uuuuugh!. No! THAT is closer to a tabletop at McDonald’s after a food fight. Does Schnabel NOT know that painting looks like shit?! This is what the real painting looks like:
Hey, let’s zoom in.
Not only are the shoestrings not just broad white slathered strokes, there’s no straight white in it, and there’s not much discernible white mixed in the yellow pigment.
In a typical, mature Van Gogh painting, the strokes are controlled, almost interlaced, and not just single colors piled in different sections of the painting.
One of the most dramatic scenes in the movie is when a priest at the [voluntary] mental asylum talks to Vincent in order to determine whether or not he will allow him to be released. You can see a bit of that conversation scattered in this trailer:
[Note that if you see the trailer and assume the movie is going to flesh things out, you’ll be disappointed. It never goes deeper than those snippets, and there’s not much dialogue.]
The priest gets Vincent declaring he’s a born painter (because he can’t do anything else, and, believe him, he’s tried), and it’s a God-given gift. Hard to believe a contemporary artist and filmmaker would put forth such a belief in 2019, but, part of the message of the film is that Schnabel is God’s gift to humanity as one of the greatest artists of all time.
The priest has set up Vincent, and then reaches over and produces one of Vincent’s canvases.
And the priest is right. The painting that appears on screen at this climatic moment is hideous. Behold:
The only thing that saves it at all is the annoying and incomprehensible device Schnabel uses throughout the movie of blurring the bottom third of the screen, as if with Vaseline. I guess those are rabbits? Yuck!
While watching this I imagined that this is what people see, who don’t understand Van Gogh, when they look at one of his canvases. They see a clumsy mess dashed off in a few minutes.
Here’s what the real painting looks like:
If you’re going to blur the fuck out of it, why not just use a print that does the original some sort of justice? Hell, you could digitally insert it after the fact. Let’s look at a couple details, because it’s the expert precision with which Van Gogh applies his strokes, and his color, in his own style, that separates his paintings from even the best of knock-offs (let alone the abysmal ones).
Whatever excuses we might make for Schnabel, he’s portrayed Van Gogh as claiming to be a born painter with a gift from God, who then offers us up a cartoonist fingerpainting executed with condiments.
You might be thinking, well, of course fakes aren’t going to be as good as the originals. True. But people have been faking Van Gogh’s for over a century, including this guy in China who does a much, much better job. The movie “Loving Vincent”, which I recommend, is made up entirely of oil paintings done in the manner of Van Gogh. Here’s a trailer:
Each cell is a painting. And, sure, they aren’t astoundingly good, and some are a bit botched or off the mark, but Schnabel only needed to produce a handful of paintings for the whole movie. Even I have done a better fake Van Gogh:
Mine’s digital, and convincing digital impasto is really difficult. It’s not the same thing as Vincent’s strokes, either. But you know what it isn’t? Ugly!
Imagine making a movie about a composer, or say, the new Freddie Mercury film, Bohemian Rhapsody (haven’t seen it), and the music is atrocious. Someone gets Freddie saying his voice is a gift from God, then he goes on stage and sounds like something out of a worst auditions compilation for American Idol.
So, yes, nobody can paint Vincent as well as Vincent, but do we have to have examples that are ghastly?
And why did Schnabel choose those paintings. I’d never seen the rabbit painting before, and it’s not one of his strongest. If you are going to make up straitjackets, why not have the priest look at one of Vincent’s best paintings, like the Irises, or, I dunno … … … Starry Night, painted from his asylum room window at night:
And if that would be too clichéd for a massively clichéd movie, why not pick any of the many paintings of the asylum grounds itself, or, … … …
OK, folks, I was just looking up the Wikipedia entry on Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy (Van Gogh series) and just looking at the thumbnails is more enriching than the whole damned movie, and with none of the pitfalls. Look at this beauty of a painting:
Hot damn, I’ve never seen this painting before. It’s gorgeous. The greens! Amazing! Why not use this painting? The whole point of the protracted scene with Hannibal Lecter was for him to tell a story about some little girl who spent the first twelve years of her life in darkness, never seeing sunlight. Then he asks Vincent, “What do you paint?”.
Now that we’ve established sunlight is his beaming subject, lets see the radiant light:
I’m looking at an overcooked pizza in the oven. Schnabel’s done a lot of films, so there’s no excuse for making a painting of sunlight as bright as a Lascaux cave painting illumined by gas lantern.
Oh, no, did Schnabel paint those himself?
An article from The Wrap explains it:
But in order to play the part, Dafoe had to learn that new skill. “When you see someone painting in the movie, it’s me,”… Director Schnabel doubled as Dafoe’s painting instructor, and the actor said he practiced four or five times before filming the opening scene of Van Gogh painting a pair of battered old shoes in one continuous take.
Yuuup. That’s about what it looks like: an amateur making a half dozen stabs at a great painting, and hoping for beginners luck. That works with bowling, not art. Let’s get, uuuuum, Matthew McConaughey to play Paganini. Just give him the violin and let him have a gander at the score for one of his solo violin caprices. Do some knee bends, then go ahead and do 5 or 6 tries to nail it, film it, and nobody will know it’s not possibly the greatest violin virtuoso of all time. Shiiiiiiiiit.
The rest of the set was adorned with other paintings, the work of a group of artists who’d made copies of Van Gogh’s most famous works. “It was a lot of fun for Julian,” Dafoe said. “He would check them out and then he’d mess with them. Usually, they were very good copies but then he’d go and give them life.”
There it is. Schnabel worked on ’em. That’s why they look like shit and still got in the picture.
If the laughably bad paintings were the only problem with the movie I’d have to say it’s an utter failure. You just can’t fail in THAT way. But there’s more, much more. Here’s Vincent crying when Gauguin decided to leave Arles:
Boo-hoo. Van Gogh is infantalized. And it’s not the only time. There’s the unwatchable sequence where Vincent asks his brother to climb in bed with him at the mental hospital in order to console him.
Sheer bathos. It’s an insult to Van Gogh and an assault on art history. I wish I could flush all of this from my mind except for the images of Defoe as Vincent out in the fields with the wide-brimmed hat. Those are fantastic.
I ask myself, where is Schnabel in this film. In Basquiat he was the obviously superior artist whose 2 or 3 story canvases dwarfed not only Basquiat’s, but Basquiat himself.
I suspect that Schnabel is Gauguin, the more mature, more successful artist who Vincent admires. When Vincent is crying about Gauguin leaving, he recounts the other artist’s words:
Schnabel’s reputation is established. Outside of this movie he has otherwise tried to dwarf Van Gogh with his own art:
The pic says it all, but if you want context, see my article: Julian Schnabel’s Clueless Self-Indictment.
This movie is a hopefully unintentional hit piece that does far more damage than good to Van Gogh’s reputation, or an understanding of his paintings. The film makes me sick, and by the end I was so bored I wanted to fast forward through it. Rather than countering ignorance about the artist, artists, and art, it reinforces the worse stereotypes and misunderstandings. FAIL!
How about an intelligent and respectful movie for art-loving adults?
If you don’t agree with me, don’t worry, my opinion is apparently an extreme minority. Here are some snippets of glowing reviews:
Julian Schnabel has made a heartfelt if straightforwardly reverent film about the last years in the life of Vincent van Gogh – acted by Willem Dafoe with all the integrity and unselfconscious ease that you would expect from this great actor. ~ Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian.
That dude could paint! There are biopics of artists that don’t ask more of an audience than that simple reaction. Not so with Julian Schnabel’s extraordinary At Eternity’s Gate, which features a monumental, career-best performance from Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh. ~ Lily Gavin for Rolling Stone.
Willem Dafoe’s magnificent performance captures every bit of the artist’s complexity in Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate. With stunning visuals and a judicious balance of poetry and drama, Schnabel draws us into both Van Gogh’s genius and his tortured life. ~ Caryn James for BBC – Culture.
“At Eternity’s Gate,” Julian Schnabel’s fluky and transporting drama about van Gogh’s tumultuous, fervid, and artistically possessed last days, is a movie that channels the light, the evanescent glow of van Gogh’s painting and being, like lightning in a bottle. ~ Owen Gleiberman for Variety.
I didn’t read a single review before writing mine. I figured I had my own take on it. I was pretty sure other people panned it, and I didn’t want to consciously or unconsciously borrow their lines. They fucking loved it. [And this just lets you know that when I do art criticism, it’s a bit different. I don’t have to answer to anyone, and I don’t care if I offend anyone. I can slap in a bunch of pics, and am otherwise not limited by the restraints various publications put on their authors.]
I stand by my review. It was a horribly botched take on what should have been an extraordinary opportunity. It could have been so awesome.
And if you like my art and art criticism, and would like to see me keep working, please consider making a very small donation. Through Patreon, you can give $1 (or more) per month. Ah, if only I could amass a few hundred dollars per month this way, I could focus entirely on my art. See how it works here.
Or go directly to my account.
Or you can make a small, one time donation to help me keep on making art and blogging (and restore my faith in humanity simultaneously).