\"At Eternity's Gate\": Willem Dafoe portrays the troubled life and art of painter Vincent van Gogh

"At Eternity's Gate": Willem Dafoe portrays the troubled life and art of painter Vincent van Gogh

Painting pain

Text: Aravin Sandran

There couldn't be a better choice of a director than Julian Schnabel to do cinematic justice to the life and work of one of the most famous artists of all time, the legendary post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh. After all, Schnabel himself is an acclaimed artist; selling for over a million at auction and exhibiting at major institutions including the Centre Pompidou in Paris. He's also a proficient auteur as well; directing artist biopic Basquiat in 1996 and the Oscar-nominated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007).

In "At Eternity's Gate", he enlists multiple Oscar-nominated actor Willem Dafoe to inhabit the mentally unstable van Gogh. Dafoe masterfully seizes Gogh's manic state of mind with hauntingly lost eyes and hollowed cheeks. To exaggerate that frenzied effect on the audience, the camera vibrates and moves along with Dafoe to an almost nauseatic effect at times, save for cinematographer Benoît Delhomme beautifully composed shots. Oscar Issac plays the part of the charming yet lesser-known French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin who met van Gogh in Arles for a brief moment before dashing off to depict voluptuous Tahitian women in the lush hillsides of French Polynesia. 

The tale here is already written, and some of us may already know the tragic end. No spoilers here, but van Gogh dies. Yet, controversially, the film alleges that he was murdered, contrary to art historians' popular belief that he shot himself and committed suicide. If there is a takeaway though, it has to be the problematic correlation between mental illness and creative genius that continues to be perpetuated today. There is no glory in being tormented.


Willem Dafoe was nominated for 'Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role' for "At Eternity's Gate". "At Eternity's Gate" is currently showing in selected Shaw Theatres.