Julian Schnabel’s movies are children of his fixations—an unmade, period baseball picture is an oddity that fell by the wayside—but his work is at its transfixing best when it permits itself to become unmoored from story. The sensations of “Before Night Falls” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” are as essential as the biographical details of Cuban author and exile Reinaldo Arenas and “frozen” writer Jean-Dominique Bauby. The elemental brilliance of Schnabel’s magisterial “At Eternity’s Gate” is to almost entirely shake free of a “biography” of painter Vincent van Gogh (Willem Dafoe). Schnabel daubs van Gogh into the natural world of Arles, face-to-face in his last years with the materials he will transform into canvases with his own vivid, transfixing imagination. Beauty is the subject; subjectivity is its beauty. Schnabel’s sensorial approach sprung from a visit to the Musee d’Orsay to see the forty-painting exhibit “Van Gogh/Artaud: The Man Suicided by Society,” along with eighty-seven-year-old screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (“Belle de jour,” “In the Shadow of Women,” “The Mahabharata,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “Every Man for Himself,” “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”). Schnabel makes a bold and true statement about that shared experience, which led to his film (with additional screenwriter Louise Kugelberg): “When you stand in front of a particular work, each one tells you something. But after you look at thirty paintings, the experience becomes something more,” he relates in the press kit. “It becomes an accumulation of all those different feelings put together,” he describes. “That’s the effect I wanted to aim at with the film, to make the structure such that as each event you see happening to Vincent aggregates, it feels as if this entire period of his life is happening to you in a moment.” Could another painter have made this movie? Would another painter have made this movie? Neither question matters: Schnabel’s work speaks passionately for itself. The ecstatic bests the tragic. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (“The Scent of Green Papaya,” “The Proposition”) is an essential conspirator. With Mads Mikkelsen, Emmanuelle Seigner, Amira Casar, Niels Arestrup, Oscar Isaac. 111m. (Ray Pride)
“At Eternity’s Gate” opens Wednesday, November 21 at River East and Landmark Century.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.