AT ETERNITY’S GATE is the latest in a long line of films about Vincent van Gogh, but it must be said that Willem Dafoe’s performance is extraordinary. Transcendent. Illuminating.
Film director Julian Schnabel is first and foremost a painter, and his artistic vision of the last two years of Vincent’s life–coupled with Dafoe’s performance–makes this film well worth seeing, particularly if you’re a fan of Van Gogh’s work. Vincent led an impoverished life. He had difficulty interacting with people and had few friends, apart from his brother. Plagued by mental demons that propelled him to cut off his ear, he later died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at 37. But, I wonder, is all that drama the main reason so many filmmakers and audiences keep revisiting his life?
Outside a Paris café, Vincent and the painter Gauguin commiserate about their frustrations with the art world. Vincent has recently finished an unsuccessful one-man show at a restaurant, and he tells Gauguin that he’s tired of the gray, that he’s looking for more light. “Go south, Vincent,” Gauguin advises. And to the south of France he goes, to a small country town called Arles. Even there it’s still winter, but Vincent trudges through the landscape communing with nature. A field of dead sunflowers–bleak and colorless–gives way to green and the blue skies of spring and before long to the lush yellow sun of summer. Vincent has found his light and the colors that will infuse his greatest works. Yet it’s also the place where thirty townspeople sign a petition stating that they’re afraid of him, that they want him evicted from the Yellow House. He voluntarily enters a nearby mental hospital for a year and then moves closer to Paris to live independently under the watchful eye of a doctor, but all the while he paints like he’s running out of time. The darkness and the ecstasy. It’s all there, in Dafoe’s face and mannerisms, and in the short scenes and moments from his ragged life.
As tortured as he was, Vincent couldn’t have continued to paint like he did if he hadn’t been in love with the natural world. What the world knows about Vincent’s life, his struggles, and what he wanted to convey to the world through his art is largely due to the many letters he wrote (900+ survive), a majority of them to his brother Theo.
I’m reminded of another prolific letter writer, former President George H.W. Bush, who was laid to rest last week after two days of moving tribute and ceremony. Watching the televised coverage at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., I was struck by the eloquence of the four eulogies and the love and admiration they expressed. Presidential historian and biographer Jon Meacham began his eulogy, “The story was almost over even before it had fully begun.” Bush had signed up for the war effort against Japan straight out of high school, and, in 1944, the plane he was piloting was hit as he flew towards a radio tower target. Bush managed to drop his bombs before roaring out to sea, where he told his two crew mates to bail. He followed. A submarine rescued the 20-year-old Bush from a small raft in the Pacific, but he was the only survivor. From then on, almost daily, Meacham said, the future President would ask himself “Why me? Why was I spared?”
In contrast, Vincent’s life ended before it had begun, in 1890, only 34 years before George H.W. Bush was born. But that’s not really accurate. Vincent’s life–his calling–had begun, the world just didn’t know about it yet. At 27, having failed at various professions–art dealer, teacher, preacher in a Dutch mining community–he wrote to his brother that he was determined to succeed as a painter. He’d had almost no formal training, but he kept at it despite very little encouragement, apart from his brother’s. And Theo was the one who sent him money every month, but painting supplies were expensive, leaving little money to live on. In Vincent’s fifteen months in the south of France, he made about 200 paintings in Arles and another 150 while he was in the asylum. He spent the final two months of his life in Auvers, just outside Paris, where he painted 77 more. In total, for the 10 years he was a painter, he left a legacy of more than 2,000 oil paintings, watercolors, drawings and sketches.
In the film, Vincent has a conversation with a priest just before he leaves the mental hospital. He tells the priest that painting is the only talent God gave him. The priest, in disbelief, says, “Don’t you see this painting is unpleasant? Ugly.” He asks Vincent if anybody buys his paintings, and Vincent replies, “Maybe God made me for people who weren’t born yet.”
Vincent was the oldest of six children. He’d failed at every job he’d ever had. It’s unknown exactly how many paintings he sold (or traded for food or supplies) during his lifetime, but there are records of only a few sales, and he was never able to support himself as a painter. Imagine if he’d given up. Van Gogh’s paintings hang in the finest museums around the world. The largest collection is at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which reported a record 2.3 million visitors last year and 3.2 million visitors to its website.
Presidential biographer Jon Meacham said during the eulogy of a President, “The workings of providence are mysterious, but this much is clear: that George Herbert Walker Bush, who survived that fiery fall into the waters of the Pacific three-quarters-of-a-century ago, made our lives and the lives of nations freer, better, warmer, and nobler. . .That’s why him.” Vincent van Gogh died 128 years ago but never got that kind of send-off. Maybe that’s why filmmakers keep making movies about him and we keep going to see them. We hope that somehow Vincent is listening and that he can feel our love and respect.
“I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corners, I see drawings and pictures.” Vincent in a letter to Theo