Next year – 2020 – will be the 130th anniversary of the death of the great artist Vincent Van Gogh. Just in the last five years, huge swaths of the historicity of Van Gogh’s life story have been called into question, analysed and fine-tuned.
A few critical areas where we’ve seen significant shifts from the original story are in the way Van Gogh suffered a gunshot wound and died, as well as the Ear Narrative [how much ear was cut off, and the events surrounding that bloody incident].
Ironically, both these shifts apply directly to what one might call the True Crime Elements of the Van Gogh Mythology. The suicide narrative now feels more like a typical true crime scene, and the ear incident has a similar scenario now too also invoking motive, blood evidence, witnesses etc, in fact all those staples we associate with the true crime genre.
What this shows is that the history around Van Gogh is still changing, still evolving. As wildly famous as Van Gogh is today, one of the most expensive artists in the world, if you had to ask who murdered Van Gogh – and why – good luck getting a straight answers. Even expert historians can’t agree. Even the mainstream media and researchers dedicated to his life story can’t explain what really happened.
So when Willem Dafoe stepped forward for his role in At Eternity’s Gate I was looking forward to seeing the most modern rendition of the Van Gogh story; a retelling with all of the latest research spun together into something more cogent, coherent and authentic. That was the hope, the expectation.
Dafoe’s casting also meant the reach of this film would be greater, and so it was. After publishing The Murder of Vincent van Gogh, my book on the popular Dutch artist, in May 2018, I made Vincent van Gogh one of my Google alerts. It’s fair to say that I get more alerts on Van Gogh on a daily basis than for any of the other high-profile true crime cases on the list.
Around the world Van Gogh is not only popular but often top of mind. When manmade spaceships notice whirls of a certain kind on Jupiter, it reminds them of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Van Gogh is as part and parcel of the modern zeitgeist as Christmas, the Oscars, Facebook and The Big Bang Theory. But how much of the popular mythology is even true?
New photos from Jupiter look like a van Gogh painting – CNN, February 2019
When psychologists and creatives try to unlock or fathom the keys to creativity, they turn to Van Gogh as both an example and a cautionary tale on how “madness” can inspire art.
World Bipolar Day: Honoring Van Gogh—Are Creativity and Madness Linked? – bphope
The real Van Gogh: A genius not driven by madness but crippled by it – BBC
Exploring Artistic Creativity And Its Link to Madness – The New York Times
If the suicide myth and the ear incident are two legs of the three-legged chair that is Van Gogh Lore, then the third leg is the myth of the man as a mad artist. In my book I investigated all three “legs”. I wanted to see how At Eternity’s Gate fared in handling these subjects.
Before dealing with the Good, Bag and Ugly of the film [ranked 6.9 on IMDb], let’s start with the name. At Eternity’s Gate is a giddy-sounding title for a rather different take by the great artist himself. Van Gogh painted various iterations of the same setup, an old man or woman bent over in despair beside a roaring hearth.
Since I knew the portent of the art, and since I’d seen the trailer, I sensed an immediate mismatch between the context of Van Gogh’s own words and sentiments [in terms of the specific “At Eternity’s Gate” artwork] and how the filmmaker was misinterpreting it.
Intuitively I was interested to watch this film but went in with low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised.
The film opens with a black screen, and Dafoe talking simply, humanly, yet profoundly as Van Gogh. It rings true and elements of his opening gambit, such as “I wish they would only take me as I am”, resonate with words written in Van Gogh’s letter to his brother Theo dated [15-27 April 1882].
So it’s a good start. Using the artist’s own words [and he wrote hundreds of letters in his life] is a smart way to achieve the authentic man through the authentic voice. It’s been done before, of course, in the excellent Painted with Words film starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
The first visual of the film is jarring – appropriately – throwing the viewer into a random farm field, and the artist approaching a maid leading a flock of sheep. He approaches her and asks her if her can sketch her. She’s confused by this and so are we.
The colors are washed-out and desaturated, which suggests Van Gogh hasn’t quite found his eye on his canvas just yet, and needs to start seeing the world – well – differently.
Jump to Paris and a difficult art crowd where Van Gogh still isn’t well-known and can’t sell a damn thing. There we encounter Paul Gauguin, an artist who is better known in 1888 than Van Gogh, and who’s having better luck selling his wares to the same crowd.
Even so, the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Naturally it doesn’t do Gauguin any harm that Vincent’s brother is an art dealer.
The next jump is to a windblown house in Arles, in the south of France. It’s cold, and Van Gogh – forced to stay indoors – is getting stir crazy. He removes his shoes and we’re offered a floor eye-view of his flea bitten socks with toes poking out of holes. This is far and away the most authentic moment in the whole film, because more than painting or writing letters, Van Gogh was a rambler. Every scene he painted he walked to, and he walked a lot. When he lived in London as a youth he rambled from London to Brighton, a distance of 53 miles. On another occasion he walked over 80 miles from London to Ramsgate.
It’s also the depiction of Van Gogh doing his thing that feels real. The glint of the oils on the palette, the sound of the brush lightly scratching on the canvas. The way the white canvas begins to fill up, almost magically, with those boots on the floor.
But this is where the first signs of trouble creep in. The boots are based on reality, and the photography isn’t a bad match for the painting. The problem is the art that is created on camera looks nothing like the painting Van Gogh executed, a detail one would expect more care and consideration in a biopic about a world famous artist and how he sees the world.
Since Willem Dafoe fancies himself as something of an artist, this may be license taken [or given by the director] to give him free reign to “interpret” Van Gogh. Well, fine, to each his own but as misinterpretations go, this one isn’t little. It’s also quite vulgar. It’s doesn’t look for feel anything like a Van Gogh you’ve ever seen, and that’s a problem.
It’s a shame, because the optics and atmosphere of everything else is just about right. It’s just the most important thing, how he looks and represents his boots on the floor that are misrepresented.
As a freelance photojournalist who wrote a series of articles on artists, and went out into the field to find the landscapes they painted [including of my own great grandfather, the Dutch artist Tinus de Jongh], I found this clumsy approach to Van Gogh’s work inaccurate and thus unacceptable.
Of the “three legs” to Van Gogh’s story, At Eternity’s Gate gets the most important part right – the lore. The basic stuff. The look and feel. To be fair, that shouldn’t be hard to do. It requires simply placing the artist where we know he was, and contextualizing the art we know he painted with real places. Incredibly, At Eternity’s Gate begins this process, but leaves out all the seminal works Van Gogh painted – from Starry Night painted at the asylum of St. Remy to Wheatfield with Crows, painted just prior to his death in Auvers.
Of course, part of what the filmmaker was trying to demonstrate through his own photographic palette was the arc of Van Gogh’s psychology, and part of that arc was simply showing how the landscape [and the man] transformed and came to life, vividly and colorfully. It’s a great premise, but sadly the filmmaker executed on it poorly, that is to say, not very “artfully” or “creatively”.
An excellent artistic and creative telling of the story through Van Gogh’s art work is successfully achieved through Loving Vincent [ranked 7.9 on IMDb].
Not only is the animated version viscerally and visually authentic, it’s also narratively and factually a masterpiece. In fact it was Loving Vincent, and the detective-story-plot, that inspired me to investigate Van Gogh’s story as a possible true crime case, and it turned out it was.
Although the portrait of Van Gogh in this film has its moments, it’s not a definitive portrait, not even close. Many others have tried, many have failed, and a few have come closer, a lot closer than this film. Simon Schama’s Power of Art series [IMDb rating 8.6/10] is a credit to the Van Gogh story, even with the miscast Andy Serkins playing the tortured artist.
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As the Good Times reviewer Lisa Jensen put it:
But for all of Schnabel’s determined technique, nothing in his movie ever quite achieves the emotional clarity of a single Van Gogh painting.
One rather has the impression the filmmaker so hastily put together his film he forgot to actually study a painting and feel the artist’s own idiosyncratic message. In other words, what we’re seeing isn’t Van Gogh but Director Julian Schnabel’s Van Gogh.
If only Schnabel had shown us the real Van Gogh, his movie would likely have one best picture, and possibly best actor. Perhaps someday if my book is turned into a movie that will happen [hey, crazier things have happened].
For me the worst part of the film was the final third, which deals with the seminal moments of Van Gogh’s life. My impression was that Schnabel read a few newspaper articles and excitedly, feverishly sticky taped them into his script.
The ear narrative is nicely woven into the film, especially the sketch of the ear by the doctor, and the “interview” with Van Gogh post mutilation. But this is where Schnabel exposes himself for failing to figure out his own story. As the ear narrative plays out the director finds himself unable to account for it. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Ah well, we’ll leave it the viewer to figure out.
And then we’re left with the biggest mystery of all. How Van Gogh was shot, and by whom? Once again Schnabel has taken a little information [that there’s evidence the wound wasn’t self-inflicted] and then ran with it.
Once again, he finds himself unable to account for the dialogue that must have followed this shooting incident in the little room where Van Gogh suffered for over 30 hours, and then died.
Here Schnabel walks out on his own story, providing a few seconds of screen time as a way to cheat the real questions haunting Van Gogh’s final hours. It’s the ultimate cop out, and the reason this film went out with a whimper amongst critics and audience alike, despite a tsunami of press and PR, and a top notch cast.
The biggest, most glaring omissions for me in the film was the absence of the word “syphilis” in the context of Van Gogh’s mental and physical health, or lack of. His brother, who died just 6 months after Van Gogh [of syphilis] is a picture of health in this story, another indication the director simply didn’t do rudimentary research, or think logically about his story.
A runner-up to the medical aspect is Van Gogh’s reputation as skirt chaser. There is virtually zero attempt to dramatize any of Van Gogh’s infamous dalliances, and as such, it’s no surprise that at the very end Schnabel’s story collapses in on itself.
So who killed Vincent van Gogh, where and why?
Great things are done by a series of small things brought together. – Vincent Van Gogh