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Movie Review

He had come to Arles to get away from the fog and colorless gray of Paris. But when Vincent van Gogh first arrives, it seems little better. Wind buffets the window, rattling it like an angry child. His room is muted and cold: He blows on his hands to try to warm them. He slowly pries his battered shoes off his feet, toe at heel: They clatter to the floor with a clump: gray-brown leather on gray-brown brick.

And then, Vincent takes out his easel and begins to paint. Rapidly, furiously, the brush moves across the canvas: Red chases yellow across rich browns and even blues. They grow vivid, rambunctious. They come alive, dizzy, mad with color.

Beautiful? No one would call those old shoes beautiful, and certainly not a subject worthy of a painting. Except, perhaps, Vincent van Gogh.

Years after he died, van Gogh was celebrated as a genius, bold and bright and utterly uncompromising. A century after, each painting, each sketch, each scribble might sell for millions. But when he went to Arles in 1888, he was a broke, reclusive failure, and very likely insane. He lived entirely off the goodwill of his brother, Theo. Only Theo believed in Vincent’s talent. Only he loved Vincent.

So, thanks to his brother, Vincent still paints—sometimes a painting a day, or two or three. He slaps color on canvas quick and heavy, as if driven by an inner demon or angel or both.

He paints because he must. “I can’t do anything else,” he tells a priest one day. “Believe me, I’ve tried.” People call his work ugly, horrible, terrifying. Vincent says he paints only what he sees, what he knows. No matter his success, no matter the praise, he’d paint just the same. The swirls of yellow, the slashes of green, the colors growing on canvas in lumps and edges.

He paints what he sees. Whether it seems beautiful or horrible, brilliant or terrible, he paints what he sees.

Positive Elements

The Vincent van Gogh we meet in At Eternity’s Gate is not the easiest person to be with, much less care for. But Theo is unreserved in his love for his big brother.

Their first meeting here takes place in an asylum, where Vincent lies in bed. He invites Theo to lie beside him, as they used to do as children to ward off the cold, and Vincent lays his head on the man’s chest as if he were still a child. The scene conveys the tenderness the two brothers have for each other, and the extent to which Vincent leans on Theo for all manner of support.

Theo is also Vincent’s strongest, sometimes only, artistic champion. He assures Vincent that despite his lack of sales, he’s an artistic genius. (And as a curator and art dealer, Theo should know what he’s talking about). And he continues to support Vincent financially, as well, giving his brother 250 francs a month for living expenses and canvasses. It’s not a princely sum by any measure. But Theo, too, is a man of limited means, and it’s all he can afford.

Vincent is deeply grateful for Theo’s love and support, as he is for the other moments of love and affection he receives at times. And we can laud him for the courage to paint what he sees, regardless of the reactions of the day. He does seem to have a gift to see another layer of creation that remains hidden to the rest of us.

“When painting a flat landscape,” he says, “I see eternity. Am I the only one to see it? Existence can’t be without reason.”

Spiritual Content

Vincent tells a priest that his father was a minister, and he’s still deeply spiritual. (Indeed, the real van Gogh served as a missionary for a short while.) He talks of finding God in nature (at one point making the two sound nearly synonymous, saying “I feel God is nature, and nature is beauty”). When a doctor quizzes him about why he cut off his ear (more on that later), Vincent quotes Scripture: “Jesus said if your hand offendeth me, cut it off.” And toward the end of his career, he tells his doctor that he’s no longer trying to force people to see the world as he sees it: “Now I just think about my relationship to eternity.”

When Vincent winds up in another asylum, he has a profound theological discussion with a visiting pastor. The priest, who has little appreciation for Vincent’s artistic abilities, balks when Vincent suggests that his artistic vision and skill are gifts from God. The priest wonders why God would “bless” someone with the ability to paint such horrible, ugly things.

And when Vincent accepts that some of his paintings do depict ugliness, and that his “gift” sometimes is the source of pain, the priest pushes back again. “God gave you this gift to keep you in misery?” he asks. Vincent ponders the question, and then suggests God made him too soon: “Maybe God made me a painter for people not born yet.” Finally, he admits that he paints “from my qualities and faults.” Both are found in the dreamlike honesty of his work. “I think of myself as in exile,” he adds.

When the priest reveals that he’s actually in charge of deciding Vincent’s fate in the asylum—whether he needs to stay or can leave—Vincent draws parallels to Jesus and Pilate, pointing out that Pilate didn’t want to have Christ killed, but that Jesus convicted himself with every statement. “I, too, have to be careful with what I say to you,” Vincent says. He then notes another similarity between himself and Jesus: Both of them were unknown in their own lifetimes, with the first historical mention of Christ being (Vincent says) about 30 to 40 years after his death.

[Spoiler Warning] The movie draws another parallel between Vincent and Jesus as well: After Vincent’s shot by a couple of kids (in a historically debatable incident), Vincent tells those attending to him, “Don’t blame anyone.” And as he’s breathing his last, he says (or thinks), “Oh God, will you receive your son?”

As the credits roll, we hear a quote from fellow artist Paul Gauguin, who spent several months with van Gogh in Arles. He recalls how the two used to fight over color, and how one day during an epic fight, van Gogh wrote on a yellow wall in purple: “I am whole in spirit. I am the holy spirit.”

Vincent sees darker presences in himself, though—things he feels inside himself (manifestations of his insanity, perhaps), and he’s terrified they might come back. One review of Vincent’s work calls it “almost supernatural.”

Sexual Content

Vincent talks a bit awkwardly with a maid assigned to help him fix up a vacant house in which to live. The maid suggests that Vincent should really take a bath at least once a week, and if he did so, some might even think him handsome. When he asks her if she would think him so, she says that she might. But when he asks her if she’d stay with him if he paid her 50 francs, she looks him up and down and says, “You don’t have 50 francs.”

When he cuts off his ear (still getting to that part!), a doctor confirms with van Gogh that he gave the appendage to a prostitute. Vincent insists that the woman he gave his ear to wasn’t a prostitute.

A priest asks Vincent if he ever molested a child, to which Vincent strenuously says no. Vincent goes to an art gallery, where some of the classic paintings therein feature naked or scantily clad men and women. At least one woman wears an outfit that shows a bit of cleavage. Vincent walks up to her and demands that she pose for him by lying down on the ground …

Violent Content

… and he grows angry with her when she doesn’t pose exactly as he wants. He twists her arm, and she yells that he’s hurting her. The camera goes black before we see anything else. And when a doctor asks Vincent about the incident later, Vincent says he doesn’t remember anything.

Vincent’s insanity does take us to some dark places, and he repeatedly says that he doesn’t necessarily trust himself: Without painting, he might kill. He doesn’t remember those blackest of moods, though, and the camera rarely documents them.

Even the ear incident (here it is!) is incredibly foggy in his memory, and the film consequently brushes past it without a lot of gory visuals. He recalls, indistinctly, that he and his painter friend Gauguin had been arguing, and that van Gogh might’ve “hurt” him. (The real Gauguin said that van Gogh chased him with a razor.) Vincent, a bandage around his head, tells the doctor that he must’ve cut off his ear, and that he gave it to the maid to give it to Gauguin, wrapped in paper that said, “Remember me.” We see the blood-stained note, and later we see the disfigured side of Vincent’s head. But the whole incident is narrated in past tense without a flashback.

The same can be said of Vincent’s death. We see someone point the gun and hear a gunshot, but the visuals are dreamy and indistinct. The main image that we’re left with is Vincent staggering down the street, clutching his gut. We later see him lying on a table, shirtless, with his belly bandaged and a hint of blood underneath.

When a bevy of school children come to look at his work and their teacher insults it, Vincent flies into a rage. There’s some jostling, and the kids flee. That evening, a couple of children throw rocks at Vincent, hitting him in the chest, and Vincent chases after them—grabbing one of them before he, in turn, is grabbed by a few men and manhandled to the ground. (The camerawork makes it difficult to tell whether they beat him or just verbally abused him.)

Crude or Profane Language

Two uses of “b--tard,” both referring to Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Drug and Alcohol Content

“You drink much too much,” a doctor tells Vincent, and it’s certainly true.

Ironically, though, the movie doesn’t actually show Vincent drinking much. One barkeep appears to pour Vincent a glass of absinthe at one point (a particularly notorious concoction that, because of the impurities present in it back in the day, often caused hallucinations and violent behavior). And we see plenty of beverages at hotels and whatnot, but Vincent doesn’t drink much on camera.

Still, lots of folks talk about his drinking habits, and certainly his blackouts and violent rages are suggestive of a drinking problem. When the same doctor tells him that he’s sending Vincent to a “hospital” where he’ll have to stop drinking and take some medication, Vincent asks him when he’ll be able to start drinking again. “That’s up to you,” the doctor says.

Vincent and Paul Gauguin both smoke pipes.

Other Negative Elements

We see Gauguin and Vincent, with their backs to the camera, urinate outside. Some people treat Vincent and others unkindly, and Gauguin cynically snipes at everything from the folks Vincent hangs out with to his fellow French artists.

Conclusion

When Vincent first arrives in Arles, he reads a small book inside a tavern. The proprietor, Madame Ginoux, asks what he’s reading, and Vincent says that it’s Shakespeare. Ginoux has never heard of the guy, and she asks Vincent if he’s any good. Very, Vincent tells her.

“Some of the lines are very [cryptic], but I like that,” he adds. “I like mystery.”

More than a century after his death, Vincent van Gogh remains a mystery in many ways. How did his madness impact his genius? How did his genius impact his madness? Was he blessed by angels? Plagued by demons? Did they somehow collaborate to create the artist we know and revere today?

At Eternity’s Gate is a dreamlike film, giving us a hint of the glory Vincent sees via its vistas and smallscapes, sometimes offering a glimpse of the world through Vincent’s own eyes. Even the cinematography in such scenes hints at his curious division of soul: It’s as if he, and we, are wearing mismatched bifocals—the top two-thirds of the frame clear and sharp, the lower third blurred and dreamy.

The film is getting some awards-season attention, especially for Willem Dafoe’s turn as Vincent van Gogh. And At Eternity’s Gate doesn’t detract from that performance with a lot of problematic content we often call out: Indeed, unlike van Gogh himself, this picture is a model of artistic restraint—a story resonantly told and beautifully filmed without a lot of salacious schlock to get in the way. We see both van Gogh’s brilliance and his terrible struggles. While the painter’s life was not particularly family friendly itself, this movie deals with it about as well as it can.

Admittedly, the spiritual elements here might give some viewers legitimate pause: Some might see it pushing Vincent past being a Christ-like figure and into a secular stand-in for Christ himself—a child of God not like what we are, but what He was.

But for the most part, I don’t think the film’s spiritual perspective seeks to weaken or use faith as much as it asks legitimate questions of it, and of God’s relation to creations like van Gogh—who, in turn, mirror God’s creative impulse through painting.

At Eternity’s Gate is not for children. But for the rest of us, this film can be, much like van Gogh’s paintings, beautiful and ugly and deep.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Genre

Drama

Author

Cast

Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh; Rupert Friend as Theo van Gogh; Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin; Mads Mikkelsen as The Priest; Mathieu Amalric as Dr. Paul Gachet; Emmanuelle Seigner as Madame Ginoux

Director

Julian Schnabel ( )

Distributor

CBS Films

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

November 16, 2018

On Video

February 12, 2019

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
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