Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 07, 2018 4:35 pm 
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Once round the sunflowers again

We didn't need another Van Gogh biopic, as Mike D'angelo points out in his recent review, despite Anthony Lane's lengthy answer to the question, "Why Do Filmmakers Love Van Gogh?" It's not that the last word has been said about this important artist. We just need to move on from the frozen romantic image of the doomed, tragic, starving, mad (male) artist who dies young - to learn about other, not so famous, not so stereotypical, but much more modern ones. This we get in Florian Henckel von Donnersmark's new film, Never Look Away, partly based on Gerhard Richter, an original and still highly contemporary artistic genius whose life spanned key moments of the twentieth century, rising out of Nazism and the Cold War and a proliferation of modern art styles to forge his own original one(s) - an artist who, though this isn't covered in the film, is still alive and productive in his eighties. And this also is not an imitation of Richter's life but, I think, simply a good story.

But in his sympathy for Van Gogh we must acknowledge Julian Schnabel as an artist first and foremost himself and a notable one - something I don't think any of the previous "Vincent" biopic makers could lay claim to. The big paintings with plates stuck to them that made Schnabel famous in the Eighties were work that some scoffed at. Of course he sold plenty of him, unlike Van Gogh. But there is much emphasis on philistine scoffers here. And also much emphasis is put on the rave first review Van Gogh received from Albert Aurier in Mercure de France, which is read at some length in voiceover by Louis Garrel.

What distinguishes Schnabel's new film is his sympathy for Van Gogh's twin passions - the passion for making paintings and the Christlike suffering of his life. After all the lead is played by Willem Dafoe, who played Christ in Scorsese's film. This Van Gogh even talks about Christ with a philistine priest at the mental hospital who thinks himself a judge of art (Mads Mikkelsen), and out in the field, he adopts a Christlike pose at one point. At Eternity's Gate vividly depicts the compulsion to be doing the work, no matter what, even when he is confined as mad. There is something quite moving in that, even though this ins't a fully satisfactory film. (Having a complete unknown, Louise Kugelberg, and a venerable veteran screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière, collaborate on the screenplay seems not to have helped.)

Other major players in the action are Van Gogh's art dealer younger brother Theo (Rupert Friend) and his colleague and friend for a time, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), whose clash with Vincent begins a long decline. Schnabel's direction doesn't seem outstanding here: nobody emerges as particularly distinctive, other than Dafoe, though Isaac looks pretty cool.

One can't help noticing that Schnabel has taken a very different tack here than in his second film, Basquiat, the treatment of an artist that was sympathetic, collegial, yet pleasingly, dry and comic. There Schnabel was dealing with a lot of people he actually had known firsthand himself. It was the art craze of the Eighties he was partly talking about. True, Jean-Michel qualifies as a tragic genius too, having died of an overdose at twenty-seven. But unfortunately for the romantic cliché, he had also become famous and rich, and the wonderful Jeffrey Wright plays him with a cool detachment that's quite the opposite of Willem Dafoe's appealing but unironic and over-explanatory version of Van Gogh.

There is so much wrong with At Eternity's Gate,, starting with D'Angelo's valid enough point: it's not necessary. After all there was a very engaging and original Van Gogh film just last year, Loving Vincent (La passion Van Gogh in the excellent French-language version). For all Schnabel's efforts - sometimes misguided - to evoke Van Gogh's eye, with shaky-cam, yellow filters, and luminous landscapes, last year's film, with its motion capture painted animation of paintings, is more remarkable and visually memorable, and it creates a quivering world that draws us in. Schnabel, the painter, works in a nice visual focus on Van Gogh's sculptural, impasto painting technique, objected to by Gauguin, who keeps telling him he should work slowly, work indoors, invent from his head, and lay the paint flatly, all things that were anathema to Vincent. But all this winds up feeling pretty familiar, despite its sincerity.

Appealingly, At Eternity's Gate feels somehow at times rather like a Sixties aventgardist film: the choppy structure, the piano score, the earnestness, even the big simple opening and closing titles show Schnabel maintaining contact with his original amateurist roots as a filmmaker. But At Eternity's Gate never merges into a real movie with fully alive scenes and richly interacting characters we can get lost into, like Pialat's 1991 film, my favorite, and the least corny of the Van Gogh biopic lot. Schnabel's film is just a series of vignettes, or stages of the Cross. One watches, ponders, and moves on to the next stage. (Some have suggested the film frequently stalls and has no rhythm.) Schnabel is more interested in odes to the beauty of light and philosophizing about art-making than recreating a world, telling a story, or building momentum.

The film's inappropriate, inaccurate treatment of language is a big wrong element that's damningly silly for this day and age. It consists of the unconvincing compromise of having villagers occasionally speak French, but Van Gogh nearly always speaking English, either with native speakers like Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin, or French guys speaking squeaky, weird English, like the great Niels Arestrop, wasted in a brief cameo as an insane ex soldier, or Matthieu Amalric, also wasted, seen for a minute as Van Gogh's friend Dr. Paul Gachet. This retro use of language is the more surprising since Schnabel boldly plunged into an all-French world for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly/Le scafandre et le papillon (NYFF 2007)), probably his finest film, where he also plunges the viewer, with rude shock, into the nightmarish experience of locked-in syndrome.

Schnabel is trying much more wanly to lock us in, with the yellow-tinted images, blurred at the bottom, the wandering, jittery lens, the overlapping repeat dialogue to take us into Van Gogh's derangement. But this is part of an inconsistent conception of the man (just as, D'Angelo notes, the POV is inconsistent), because when Dafoe talks, he nearly always, even toward the end, sounds totally sensible and just damned nice. Dafoe is immensely appealing, and always watchable. He is a wonderful actor. But lacking is that necessary hard core otherness. He never ceases to seem like anything but Willem Dafoe, a guy who looks a lot like Van Gogh, playing Van Gogh.

At Eternity's Gate, 105 mins., debuted at Venice, where Dafoe received the acting award. Seven other international festivals, including the New York Film Festival where it was the Closing Night Film. Limited US release began 16 Nov. 2018. Screened for this review at Albany Twin, 7 Dec. 2018. Metascore 78.

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