REVIEW: At Eternity’s Gate

Thank you, but I would prefer the Bob Ross biopic.

In his final years of life, Vincent Van Gogh continues on his perilous pursuit to promote his expressive nature through artwork so controversially perceived.

A grand, sweeping and rather fitting portrait of Vincent Van Gogh’s life, bleeding through various visuals like a tapestry on fire, Loving Vincent was one of my favourite films of 2017… but this isn’t 2017. What was technically a 2018 effort (but one that I have come to view in 2019) At Eternity’s Gate is the new explorative piece on the life and death of one of history’s greatest artists: Vincent Van Gogh. Now, I won’t hide my love for the very recent Loving Vincent and its ability to honour the story of Van Gogh through the medium of painted animation to really capture the essence of the man, but that also means I have to be 100% honest with my thoughts on At Eternity’s Gate and to that point, I have to say… I didn’t really like this movie.

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(Lily Gavin/ CBS Films, 2019)

Based off performance and most of the technical qualities of At Eternity’s Gate, this film could not necessarily be coined a ‘bad’ movie. Most of its elements were rather intelligently executed and, furthermore, At Eternity’s Gate boosted a simply well-done biopic… but that’s all this movie was – a biopic.

Now, I’m not saying that the general biopic is bad (even though the ones about musicians, for the most half, are) but my problem with biopics comes down to, essentially, how formulaic and truly boring they basically are. Film critics continue to trash on Marvel films for their formulaic (sometimes boring) structure, and even though there are completely different negatives that deteriorate the products of the MCU, the acclaimed biopic genre hardly ever receives any backlash for following the exact same guidelines. Try think of a biopic that does not take place over the course of a character’s entire life or their final few years or months alive. Try and think whether or not the only good thing you remember about that biopic was the lead actor and actress’ performance… am I right? Biopics have never truly evolved to be insightful self-portraits of the man or woman they wish to explore and instead just exist to grant its’ director and, especially, lead actor or actress an Oscar nomination. Biopics just generally never seem like they really have anything to say – and if they do, its usually just some truly basic thematics not worthy of such great talent.

The reason then that I loved Loving Vincent was because of how it broke the formula of a biopic to the point that it did not even resemble a ‘biopic’. The film explored the life and death of Vincent Van Gogh but through more creative means as it examined Van Gogh’s story through a fantasy murder mystery tale that ended with an air of ambiguousness which suited the film’s style of storytelling and filmmaking whilst also honouring Van Gogh in a more fitting style. Not to mention how the film contained frame after frame of Van Gogh styled paintings that made up the film’s animation – if that’s not a creative way to paint (literally and figuratively) a human being’s self-portrait for the big screen, than what is? Loving Vincent was a biopic indeed, but it was a biopic on the essence of Van Gogh, rather than a literal retelling of events. To cut it short, I learnt more about Van Gogh as a person in the more fantastical Loving Vincent rather than I did in the more grounded At Eternity’s Gate.

So I guess I am now finally ready to talk about the film of the hour – At Eternity’s Gate. This film just never really grabbed me on any level. It moved through shades of reflecting the inner turmoil and terror flickering behind the eyes of Van Gogh, but never did it feel deep enough to explore further. For a film referencing eternity in its title, the movie honestly just felt overly shallow.

Aside from some grand landscape shots and moments where some gorgeous music would play against an image of Van Gogh painting in the European wilderness, the cinematography just did not work for me entirely. The constant flares and blur over certain sequences really separated my attachment to almost all of the film’s proceedings. The director made some interesting choices in how to shoot At Eternity’s Gate and reflect Van Gogh’s story, but none of it felt like it had any real visible purpose and came off as rather shaky in execution. The film would also feature constant voiceover of Van Gogh recalling past conversations he would have with people in his life, as if to show the repetitive nightmares of the past eating away at him, but all of it just felt unnecessary.

Although there was no bad performance in this movie, the only actor I could truly recall leaving any lasting impression on the film was Willem Dafoe. As per usual, Dafoe really gave this film his all and it honestly devolved into a performance of a lifetime for the genius actor. If At Eternity’s Gate had anything truly going for it, it was Dafoe, but nothing really else.

Now I don’t want to end this review by saying “just to remind you, I didn’t hate this movie – I just had my problems with it”, but that statement could never be truer than it is here. If anything, I was just rather bored with At Eternity’s Gate. The movie offered nothing truly fresh or nuance and purely just felt like it existed to make light of Dafoe as an intense, loveable actor and nothing truly else. I could not exactly recommend At Eternity’s Gate as I believe Loving Vincent honoured the titular artist in a greater light, but this film still had its merits and could not exactly be forgotten about on a whim. Even though I did not personally like At Eternity’s Gate, who knows, maybe this film will resonate with people in the future. Van Gogh always believed that he made art not for the society he lived in but for future generations to obsess over. Maybe the same goes for At Eternity’s Gate – only problem is, I don’t live in this theoretical future society… not yet at least.

At Eternity’s Gate sadly belongs in the… KINGDOM OF THE CRIMINALLY DULL…

 

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