At Eternity’s Gate is nearly the antithesis to last year’s Loving Vincent. One is a live-action film about Vincent van Gogh’s life as a painter, starring the world class actor Willem Dafoe, directed by American filmmaker Julian Schnabel. The other is a landmark piece of animation about van Gogh after his death, made up entirely of oil paintings, directed by Polish filmmaker Dorota Kobiela and British filmmaker Hugh Welchman. And yet, despite their major differences, they tie together harmoniously to create a larger picture of not only van Gogh as a character, but of the way he saw the world and the mental health problems he dealt with — likely due in part to both Schnabel and Kobiela also being painters themselves.
Loving Vincent is, at first, a bit of a strange piece, structured almost as a murder mystery. Frenchman Armand Roulin, one of van Gogh’s real life subjects, sets out to deliver a letter to Vincent’s brother and, on the way, encounters many people who had crossed paths with Vincent. Each person’s tale of the genius painter is drastically different, and Roulin is enraptured by van Gogh’s life, obsessed with whether he died by suicide or was murdered.
But as the film goes on, it slowly becomes clear that the differing stories aren’t serving the mystery of how van Gogh died, but are more so touching on how people interpreted his difficulties in life. The film specifically paints a portrait of how people perceive someone struggling with depression, whether they read him or her as cold, admire that person from a distance, or can relate but still have trouble helping. In essence, Loving Vincent evokes van Gogh’s impressionism in that it offers other people’s impressions of the artist, before critiquing those very voyeurs’ assumptions. The film leaves viewers with a powerful note of empathy toward someone who’s struggling.
That’s where At Eternity’s Gate comes in. Julian Schnabel’s film offers direct access to van Gogh’s mind. The film even allows viewers to literally become him, whether it’s through handheld POV shots, distorted images or fourth wall perspectives.
Benoît Delhomme’s frenetic cinematography evokes the human eye in ways that few other films ever really have, and in ways that feel of how van Gogh understood the world. The editing, often colored by out-of-sync dialogue and unstable perspectives, lets viewers know the madness that van Gogh fears is consuming him. And Dafoe’s performance is filled with intimate, tragic tension. At Eternity’s Gate is fully committed to being a vessel for van Gogh, a visual impression of his interiority.
At Eternity’s Gate touches on how van Gogh’s paintings indicate how he lives on, that they’re for people beyond his life. Fittingly, Loving Vincent literally manifests his painted world after his death, showing the life within his paintings and how others live in a world he will have forever touched.
The two titles even work in harmony. At Eternity’s Gate is named after a van Gogh painting and touches on his thoughts about existence. Loving Vincent is named after how van Gogh signed off letters or, essentially, how he communicated with others and how he left the world behind.
Both films are not only shaped by artists that understand van Gogh as an artist, they’re shaped by people that understand distinctly how van Gogh’s art made him human.
Kyle Kizu (@kylekizu) is a freelance film writer out of Los Angeles. His writing has also appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, Fandor, Crooked Marquee and Film Inquiry.