Movie review / ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ (PG) ****

Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate”.

SITTING beside me as I write this review is a copy of “Van Gogh and the Seasons”, bought after seeing a selection of his paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria.

That exhibition took patrons through a screening of a documentary that prepared us to see a curated exhibition from which I came away feeling I had just attended an art historian’s lecture about the man’s art rather than the man himself.

Writer/director Julian Schnabel’s film concentrating on a brief but important period in Vincent van Gogh’s life examines the man more closely, and perhaps more reliably, than any of the surprisingly few previous attempts to tell about him in moving images. And it does so with sympathy and a strong implication of credibility based on best available research.

The film mainly deals with the artist’s period living and painting in Arles, southern France. It attempts, tolerably effectively, to explain how he saw what he was painting before he began work. Every painting begins with the line. Only the artist knows where it will take him, what space it will define. Colour and texture follow. The film provides wonderful object lessons demonstrating these basics. Vincent takes off his battered boots in the inn where he is living in Arles. And we see how lines and spaces, followed by colour, grow the painting. It’s but one of the film’s wonderful experiences.

Playing Vincent, Willem Dafoe delivers an Oscar-nominated performance. Rupert Friend plays his loving brother Theo. Oscar Isaac plays Paul Gauguin whose friendship was important in Vincent’s development.

Vincent painted seven portraits of Madame Ginoux, owner of the Café de la Gare where he boarded in Arles. Emmanuelle Seigner plays her in the film. But apart from the portraits, her significance to the story provides the film with a special coda. During conversation, in which he tried to explain to her why he paints, she gave him (so the film says) a book with blank pages, which he used as a sketchbook. Nobody else knew of its existence until 2016, when it was found – where is not important, but the provenance of its 65 hitherto unseen sketches is undeniable. Where are they now? And when will the world get a look at them?

At Dendy and Palace Electric

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Dougal Macdonald
“CityNews” film reviewer

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