Here’s the cast. Starring, we have Willem Dafoe (THE FLORIDA PROJECT , FINDING DORY , JOHN WICK , and upcoming films VOX LUX  and AQUAMAN ), Oscar Isaac (LIFE ITSELF , STAR WARS VIII  and VII , X-MEN: APOCALYPSE , and upcoming films SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE  and THE ADDAMS FAMILY ), Rupert Friend (A SIMPLE FAVOR , HITMAN: AGENT 47 , and the upcoming SEPARATION ), and Mads Mikkelsen (STAR WARS: ROGUE ONE , CASINO ROYALE , and upcoming films ARCTIC  and CHAOS WALKING ).
Now for the crew. Directing, co-writing, and co-editing is Julian Schnabel, known for stuff I’ve either never seen or heard of. Schnabel’s partners-in-pen are Jean-Claude Carrière (stuff I’ve either never seen or heard of) and co-editor Louise Kugelberg (debut; congrats). Composing the score is Tatiana Lisovkaia, known for stuff I’ve either never seen or heard of. Finally, the cinematographer is Benoît Delhomme, known for FREE STATE OF JONES (2016).
Already saw it, so let’s jump on in.
This is my honest opinion of: AT ETERNITY’S GATE
Set in France, circa the late 1800s. Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) faces harassment and public ridicule as he tries to paint, making few friends along the way.
I almost feel like I have no business writing this review. I couldn’t tell you why, but I was so freakin’ tired at the time that I saw this and fell asleep through so much of it. Hell, I don’t even think I was drinking that heavily. But nope, I bought this ticket, I sat through the trailers and sat in my seat until the credits, so I’m going to. With all that said, there’s another reason why I fell asleep through this movie. Because… it’s SO BORING!!!
Don’t get me wrong, I love me a good Willem Dafoe movie. Hell, I love me a bad Willem Dafoe movie. But here… man, this movie had almost nothing going for it. Before seeing this, the movie was getting labeled by critics as this “fantasia” into Van Gogh’s life prior to his death. Now, when someone uses the word “fantasia” to describe a movie, I immediately get flooded with curiosity and excitement. This is because my idea of a “fantasia” is pure focus on visual storytelling with creative, trippy, and gorgeous visuals to tell a story, rather than with a script and exposition, similar to Disney’s FANTASIA. And while that certainly does happen in this movie, it’s like… one or two scenes that show anything remotely like that. This is a tried and true plot-based story.
But bashing a movie for what I wanted it to be is unfair. The movie should be accepted as is and given a fair review on its own merits. So, I’ve already said it’s boring, but does that make it bad? I say, not necessarily, but kinda. The movie showcases that Vincent was a pretty underappreciated guy. His paintings look like they were often rejected and his peers didn’t seem to care one way or another about him with the exception of Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), and the dude just looks like he wants to paint what he wants without being harassed. Whether or not this is fact, I couldn’t say, but Vincent is mocked by children, and when they mess up his painting, he’s understandably enraged and scares the kids and the teacher, who calls him a monster and a hack. They even have the nerve to say shit like, “I remember a time when painters painted something beautiful and meaningful.” Psh, shows what that bitch knew, as Van Gogh is now in 2018 still regarded as one of the most respected and famous painters of all time. Regardless, this is a frustrating scene for all the right reasons and really gets you engaged in Vincent’s character.
I will also admit to some truly spectacular cinematography. I would almost swear that some of the landscapes were living paintings themselves, which makes you understand why Vincent is there so often and why he’s so passionate about it. So give either Dafoe or Van Gogh, or Delhomme, or all three, some credit, they make you see beauty in nature as great cinematography and acting should do. Or with a movie like this, anyway. So some credit should also go to the head honcho himself, Julian Schnabel, who is actually a painter. With that in mind, you can tell that this movie is a passion project and wanted this movie to look like a moving painting. He even taught Dafoe how to paint. One of my first notes in my notebook was “Can Dafoe actually paint?” and I just saw an interview that Dafoe did on Kelly & Ryan, and yeah, Schnabel taught Dafoe how to paint. And not just paint, but to paint like Van Gogh. I have to give praise to that and respect is much deserved.
It’s also a mostly well-made film. There are long takes with actors having to actually memorize their lines, which is certainly an underappreciated talent in film. The settings are quite lovely, and even scenes taking place in otherwise dull locations are still pretty to be in. The score complements those scenes and is therefore also a great positive toward the movie. Full disclosure, I’m listening to the score right now as I write this review. Very soothing and relaxing piano work. I don’t know if Lisovkaia is actually playing, but the music is so nice to listen to. Highly recommend checking it out.
But my compliments end there.
I know I mentioned my fair share of compliments for the cinematography, but there’s one area that is almost baffling in how uncomfortable it is, and that’s the insane amount of close up shots of the actors, from the big to the small. You remember how in the early 90s, bad comedies had a habit of doing close up, wide angle shots of people’s faces? Yeah, that’s a lot of this movie. It’s like everyone in this movie is trying to eat the audience and the movie is trying to serve us to them. No Le Chiffre! I am not food! Go back to breaking James Bond’s balls! And these aren’t just quick moments that at least shift from face to face to have some variety in focus. No, the camera will hold on these faces for several minutes as someone, particularly Vincent, talks to them. It’s… so weird and I really didn’t agree with it. This happens to much in the film that during the final scenes, I made the conscious effort to sleep through these jarring moments that I inadvertently didn’t realize that it was, in fact, the final scene. Or one of them, rather. I think I understand what Schnabel was going for here. These close-ups are supposed to be like portrait paintings, which are in of themselves, close ups of a person. But I feel like the camera is too close to the faces. Or perhaps what works on a painting isn’t necessarily going to work on camera.
Even when the camera isn’t awkwardly zooming in on faces, there are times when the camera does not hold the hell still. I mean, Jesus, I felt like I was watching a Bourne film, and that should never be a comparison I make when watching a film about Vincent Van fucking Gogh! The camerawork is so inconsistent that I have no idea what anyone was thinking. No joke, I literally had to look away sometimes because I was getting a headache.
Overall, I know I had more positives to say about the film, but at the end of the day, the positives were far inbetween the boring stuff. The truth is, this isn’t my cup of tea. I respect the hell out of the film, that’s for sure. For a movie that’s more about painting than it is a biopic about Van Gogh, it’s impressive that I got as much out of it as I did for as uncultured as I am. Still, this movie is a slow burn, it’s shot horridly, and loses my focus more than a few times during its run time. Don’t get me wrong, I can see someone liking this, so you won’t hear me argue with anyone. So on that note, I do recommend seeing this. Maybe more as a rental than anything, or a matinee screening at the cinemas if it’s still playing. Take that for what you will. Younger audiences may not care for it, but if you appreciate art and Dafoe, I don’t know, maybe you’ll get more out of it than I did.
My honest rating for AT ETERNITY’S GATE: 3/5
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