Movies about painters, from “Pollock” to “Frida” to “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” tend to be ordinary, as if whatever inside the artist that burned and ached was impervious to being captured on celluloid.
Even painter Julian Schnabel failed, in his first film, 1996’s “Basquiat,” to capture the soul of Jean-Michel Basquiat. But his take on Vincent Van Gogh in the new “At Eternity’s Gate,” is far more interesting — fragmented, interior and challenging.
“Eternity’s Gate” begins in Paris in the 1880s, as Vincent (Willem Dafoe) is having little success with his paintings.
He meets avant-garde painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), who encourages him to travel south. In Arles, thanks to funding from his loving, supportive brother Theo (Rupert Friend), Vincent rediscovers nature and begins painting his remarkable landscapes and flowers.
But, drinking and displaying bad behavior, he gets into trouble. A visit from Gauguin lifts his spirits, but when the time comes for his friend to depart, Vincent cuts off his own ear with the intention of sending it to him.
He winds up in psychiatric hospitals, before being discharged to Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890, where Dr. Paul Gachet (Mathieu Amalric) looks after him in the final months of his life.
The enchanting Emmanuelle Seigner (Roman Polanski’s muse) co-stars as an innkeeper who gives Vincent a blank sketchbook, and the severe Mads Mikkelsen plays a priest that has a deep discussion with Vincent about God’s gifts.
Dafoe’s deeply committed performance unquestionably drives the movie, and possibly ranks above all other cinematic portrayals of the great painter (including those by Kirk Douglas, Tim Roth, Jacques Dutronc, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Scorsese).
Unlike many artist movies, “At Eternity’s Gate” carefully avoids showing much of Vincent’s drinking or rages or fits of lunacy.
But it shows the aftermath. Vincent, who blacked out most of what happened, is left with nothing more than doubts, fears and shadows of some unholy, forgotten events.
Devoted to the inner life of an appealingly sad, lost, character, “Eternity’s Gate” has none of the showiness of a typical biopic. (Even the cutting of the ear isn’t shown.)
Schnabel, who found his footing with 2007’s remarkable “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” favors roving, point-of-view camerawork, sometimes with half the frame blurred or filtered, as if seen through half-closed or rheumy eyes.
The wobbling, sometime lurching camera will no doubt make some viewers seasick, and the quasi-experimental sound — switching from silence to overlapping, repeating dialogue, to a spare, bittersweet piano score by Tatiana Lisovkaia, which sometimes suddenly cuts off — is half-maddening.
The movie misses chances to deepen relationships between Vincent and either Theo or Gauguin. There are fine, touching moments of these men together, but they’re ultimately one-sided.
Yet the thoughtful dialogue, co-written by the 87-year-old Jean-Claude Carrière — who worked on the great Luis Bunuel’s final six films, from 1967’s “Belle de Jour” to 1977’s “That Obscure Object of Desire” — provides plenty of fascinating talk about the nature of art, painting and existence. (“Existence can’t be without reason,” Vincent theorizes.)
Schnabel offers a meticulous, convincing re-creation of what Van Gogh’s painting style might have been like, with close-ups of hands applying thick daubs of paint in spots and lines and dashes, making fields and trees and skies (more like sculpting, Gauguin criticizes.)
The technique adds dimension to the paintings, making them particularly vivid, leaving viewers with a moving impression of the element of Van Gogh that still lives today — his art.
At Eternity’s Gate
Three and half stars
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner
Written by: Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg, Julian Schnabel
Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes