Dry vine, old trees, night crows
Small bridge, running creek, cottage huts
Old path, west wind, lean horse
Evening sun setting west
A hearts torn man wanders at the edge of the world
Of the two previous films I’ve seen by Julian Schnabel, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the prevailing quality to his brand of cinema is in how he captures movement. His camera recklessly careens through the visual space, often capturing fragments at such a rapid clip that it constitutes something close to an assault. There’s a claustrophobia that comes with his formalism, where Schnabel will frequently tighten his focus on an actor’s face, only for the camera to discombobulate out of orbit and drift a moment or two longer than you’d expect before he cuts to the next scene. The result produces a feeling of anxious vitality. Uneasiness quickly mounts and, for this viewer, it caused me to grip the cushion of my armrest. At least that was the case for his new film, At Eternity’s Gate, with its fragmented passages reminding me a bit of the Ma Zhiyuan poem “Autumn Thoughts” cited above. This is a film built on shifting particles and wispy gestures intended to arouse a purely sensory, ephemeral experience. To state the obvious, At Eternity’s Gate is transporting and utterly sublime when Schnabel is successful, though one’s endurance to survive this exceedingly uncompromising exercise makes the journey less than pleasant.
This unorthodox biopic of the latter years of Vincent van Gogh’s (Willem Dafoe) life is riddled with extraordinary images as the painter attempts to escape from the dreary confines of Paris, all while losing his sanity in the wilderness of Southern France. Images capture the man at work, beginning with the slightest ink strokes as we see the image slowly fill the canvas. These initial passages, with van Gogh in retreat as Schnabel candidly captures the artist consumed by nature, are vivid in their elegance and a stirring argument for the integrity required to be a great artist. Schnabel, however, relents on his abstract pontificating instead introducing the narrative of van Gogh’s encroaching insanity in starts and spurts. The result is an odd conglomeration of lush, Malick-esque imagery compounded by frequent, and frankly tiresome, tête-à-têtes with familiar faces like Mads Mikkelsen and Mathieu Amalric.
To “figure out” At Eternity’s Gate strips it of some of its mystique, as Schnabel’s increasingly ostentatious flourishes seem less impressive when you’re aware that another first-person confession is on the horizon. And it becomes increasingly clear that Schnabel is less concerned with the complexity of van Gogh’s relationship with his art (little is mentioned of the painter’s technique), with the filmmaker instead preoccupied by broader, more universal travails of an artist pursuing their work. The images produced by Schnabel, compounded by Dafoe’s tender performance, are vividly rendered, but frankly too taxing on the senses. The end result is a beautiful pontification, yet too superficial to be called thoughtful. The images here will linger, even as the finer details of it have already fluttered away from my memory.