Filmmakers have traditionally been drawn to the life of Vincent van Gogh because, on some level, that life reflects their own worst fear - that of ending up a misunderstood artist, underappreciated or openly reviled in their lifetime, driven into penury and desperate, self-lacerating acts besides. They make these movies to warn us, the unwashed peasantry, not to make the same mistakes again; that madness in great ones must not unwatched go. In certain cases - Minnelli and Altman spring most readily to mind - those doubts would now seem utterly unfounded. It is, however, telling that Minnelli filmed Lust for Life at a moment when the big-picture primacy of his cinema was coming under threat from television, and that Altman compiled his Vincent & Theo in 1990, towards the end of a decade spent in the cinematic low country. The more interesting Van Gogh movies stem from directors whose place in the creative hierarchy chimes with that of the painter himself, who themselves risked marginalisation of one form or another: Paul Cox's Vincent from 1987, and Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh from 1991. (Evidently, there was a lot of reflection on the point and purpose of making art as a more commercialised cinema emerged in the Eighties and Nineties.) Now we have artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate, which has already avoided oblivion thanks to Academy voters' recognition of Willem Dafoe's performance as VVG. The study of the painter's final days that unfolds around him has been composed of familiar faces, gestures, scenes and colours, which is perhaps why it resorts to formal choices that are bold yet not entirely successful.
Schnabel wants to throw off any notion that his tale might be a static thing of the past, and instead underline that this is very much a story about a living, breathing maker of art such as himself. To this end, he has ripped the camera from its tripod, as Malick encouraged the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to do on their recent projects, and shot a high percentage of what we see in something close to first person - action painting on film. The aim is experiential; it seeks to create a kind of Vincentland the film can thrust us inside having first relieved us of our groats. We see what this van Gogh sees (generally, the uncomprehending faces of strangers), we stagger across the same landscapes, and when Vincent is set upon by a baying mob and kicked in the head, we too lose our hearing on one side. The approach feels perilously ticky, however, and often more exhausting than enlightening. Watching the painter take off his boots at the end of a long day requires a multitude of angles, a flurry of cuts, and wearying directorial effort. (The surprise is that this Vincent doesn't chop off his feet along with that dulled ear.) By comparison, the painting is made to look absurdly easy: having thrown those boots to one side, our Vince immediately slaps some acrylics on a canvas and - bish bash bosh - transforms this mundane scene into a masterly still life. Schnabel's argument would doubtless be that, by this stage in his creative evolution, his subject had the technique down pat; he was just waiting for the world to catch up with him. Yet the briefing we're handed here is a mix of deft illustration and onerous art theory: it might have been preferable if the filmmaker had muted the sound on both sides of the auditorium, and merely set us to looking at his pictures.
The bulk of the first half is an ongoing conversation between Dafoe's Vincent and a rather self-conscious Oscar Isaac as cocky Paul Gauguin, notably unburdened by any of his pal's neuroses. The younger man's self-assurance gives Schnabel something to define his otherwise palpably lonesome Van G against, but the writing proves as reliably on-the-nose as the camera is restless. (Gauguin, observing the Van Gogh technique: "You're changing things so fast you can't even see what you've done!") The second half is a listless trudge towards the grave, the route lined with passing famouses in cardboard characterisations whose function is to coax Vincent into glum reflections on his legacy: Niels Arestrup a woebegone asylum inmate with regrettable face tattoos, Mads Mikkelsen a priest to whom our hero confesses "Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren't born yet", Mathieu Amalric a doctor in a jaunty Breton cap. Dafoe sure looks the part, and he has some effective scenes of physical theatre, clawing his way through idyllic countryside with sketchpad and pastels. (Schnabel seems to have conceived the film partly in response to that eternal question of what artists do all day.) Yet the actor is required to be very nearly as agonised here as he was as Christ, even reacting to a passing party of schoolchildren as if they were demons - and the film feels obliged to justify Vincent's suspicions by having the brats rock his easel and pelt him with stones. At its best, the rock 'em-sock 'em approach generates a little of that eyecatching vibration 2017's rotoscoped animation Loving Vincent managed, but I'm not so sure such superficial flourishes altogether convince as believable life, and that they aren't finally indistinguishable from mannerism.
At Eternity's Gate is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon.