Monday, 30 September 2019

At Eternity's Gate ★★★★☆

When the 2019 Academy Award nominations were announced, there were few surprises. Bohemian Rhapsody picked up a bunch of nominations – and indeed wins – inexplicably, while other front runners like The Favourite, Vice and Green Book made their presence known in all the key categories. But one film snuck into the nominations without a whisper. At Eternity’s Gate picked up a Best Actor nomination for Willem Dafoe. Wait, what? Be honest, had you even heard of this film before Oscar season? And hell, I suspect some of you still haven’t heard of it. I know I hadn’t, and I pride myself on being pretty up-to-date on the film world.

The film follows the final days of beloved painter Vincent van Gogh, during the period of his self-imposed exile in Arles and Auvers-Sur-Oise, France. Whilst here, he develops his unique, colourful style while grappling with religion, mortality, relationships and eternity. It all sounds rather heavy – and frankly, it is. This is an extremely artistic film, fitting of its subject. The complex themes are dealt with in a very powerful and poignant way, and nothing is particularly spelled out for the audience. All of this requires a stellar performance at its core and thankfully Willem Dafoe is the man for the job – so, it is unsurprising that he picked up a nod at the Oscars.

Director Julian Schnabel has said “This is a film about painting and a painter and their relationship to infinity. It is told by a painter. It contains what I felt were essential moments in his life; this is not the official history – it's my version. One that I hope could make you closer to him”. Always a pretty troubling approach with a biopic, but here, it is understandable – and quite refreshingly brave. The key piece of artistic license taken by the film is presenting the final moments of van Gogh alternatively to the conventional account. While most agree that van Gogh died by suicide, the film – based on Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s biography The Life, supposes that it was unlikely van Gogh would’ve killed himself (noting the upbeat feel of his final work, and his belief that suicide was sinful and immoral). I shan’t spoil the film’s approach to van Gogh’s death but it does change how we think about the painter.

The film’s cinematography by Benoît Delhomme is truly stunning, inviting us to journey into a living, breathing van Gogh work. While it is nowhere near the same effect as the utterly phenomenal animated film Loving Vincent – it is a far more subtle approach – it is equally beautiful. Supporting work from Mads Mikkelsen and Oscar Isaac is stellar too, with the latter in particular shining as post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin. 

At Eternity’s Gate is a brave approach to biographical filmmaking, presenting an alternative theory as factual and building a film around it – changing everything we think we know about the great artist. This is a film that inspires further research on the subject and might just create a new appreciation for his work. I thought it was a fantastic little film and totally deserving of that surprising Oscar nomination – hell, it could’ve probably earned more.

Sam Love

At Eternity's Gate at CeX

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