CALLERI: Willem Dafoe paints an indelible portrait of Vincent van Gogh

Photo courtesy of CBS FilmsIn “At Eternity’s Gate,” Willem Dafoe stars as painter Vincent van Gogh in a new interpretation of his life from director and artist Julian Schnabel.

Imagine, if you will, that you are a friend of Vincent van Gogh. You drink with him, eat with him, celebrate what little joy he feels, and commiserate when things are going badly, which is often.

You take walks with him through lush amber fields and watch crows scurry into the sky. You visit the deepest moment of twilight with van Gogh and later marvel at the swirling stars that greet the night.

It’s apparent from the beginning of “At Eternity’s Gate” that director Julian Schnabel was not interested in telling a linear narrative about the life of celebrated artist Vincent van Gogh. He places moviegoers at Vincent’s side.

Schnabel, an artist turned filmmaker (“Basquiat,” “Before Night Falls,” “The Diving Bell And The Butterfly”), is fascinated by the interior life of van Gogh – the painter’s imagination and process of creativity.

Schnabel’s movie lets us know what van Gogh is thinking as he applies paint to his canvases. He examines the artist’s moods and feelings. He wants us to know what van Gogh believed.

The artist has been the subject of many other movies. As a character, Kirk Douglas’s van Gogh in the popular “Lust for Life” had the most resonance for Hollywood-loving audiences. However, Robert Altman’s “Vincent & Theo” is a far superior film. Famed French filmmakers Alain Resnais and Maurice Pialat crafted remarkable works about him. Resnais’ study was a documentary. Akira Kurosawa paid tribute to van Gogh in his “Dreams” – Martin Scorsese played the painter. “Loving Vincent,” the world’s first completely hand-painted feature film, is a gorgeous telling of van Gogh shaped by personal letters and unfolding in the style of his paintings.

“At Eternity’s Gate” follows van Gogh through temperamental personal and public battles, as well as his turbulent artistic and financial times. The fact that his artworks are virtually unsellable weighs heavily on him. A deep depression often overwhelms him. Yet, he continues to paint. It’s what he knows. It’s what he does.

We tend to think of celebrated artists as larger than life. Schnabel advises us that when van Gogh was alive, he was merely one of many, not only other painters and sculptors, but also villagers. Certainly more complex, perhaps more noticeable, but he only became extraordinary after his death.

The movie, which examines the artist’s final years in France, in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, takes its title from an 1890 painting by van Gogh.

The film rises on the remarkable performance of Willem Dafoe as van Gogh. He inhabits the artist and makes us believe in the character and understand his promise and travails. Dafoe won the Volpi Cup for best actor at the recent Venice Film Festival. He deserves an Oscar nomination for his van Gogh.

There is also very good acting from Rupert Friend as Theo van Gogh, Oscar Isaac as Paul Gaugin, Emmanuelle Seigner as Madame Marie Ginoux, Mads Mikkelson as a priest, and Mathieu Amalric as Dr. Paul Gachet.

Schnabel’s vibrant interpretation of the emotional life of an artist and Dafoe’s stellar acting help overcome the movie’s one major weakness, which is its sometimes overly theatrical dialogue.

“At Eternity’s Gate” is co-written by 87-year old Jean-Claude Carriere and first-time screenwriter, Louise Kugelberg. Carriere is most famous for writing or co-writing the films of Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel. Kugelberg, an interior designer, is in a relationship with Schnabel.

Because of his work with Bunuel, I have a feeling that Carriere contributed to an understanding of what’s called the “dream state” and an artist’s relationship to his art. I don’t know specifically what Kugelberg’s contributions were, but perhaps it’s the dialogue that is too modern.

There are moments when the pacing falters slightly – Schnabel and Kugelberg share editing credit – but the movie recovers because of Dafoe, the beautiful cinematography by Benoit Delhomme, and the ever-present fascination with van Gogh.

As you watch “At Eternity’s Gate,” you’ll be engaged by the fact that Dafoe has captured the essence of van Gogh’s intellectual complexity. The actor’s forceful eyes are looking into the artist’s future. Discover anew what he sees.

SWIMMING WITH MEN: British moviegoers love slice-of-life comedies like “The Full Monty,” “Brassed Off,” and “Kinky Boots.” This time-around we’ve got an accountant (Rob Brydon) whose job and marriage are stuck in a rut. He’s bored, but not unhappy, although his teenage son thinks he’s a bit of a drip. 

“But what can a poor boy do, except to sing for a rock n roll band? Well, he can join an out-of-shape male synchronized swim team, that’s what. Belly flops, literally, abound.

Comic movies like this rely on a suspension of disbelief from the audience and a willingness to accept that a mixed bag of characters will exhibit heretofore unknown camaraderie, all for a unifying cause. Laughter ensues.

Our fair accountant, a fellow who knows a thing or two about mathematics and synchronizing numbers, advises the swimmers that they need 8 participants, not 7 to co-ordinate properly their waterborne routines. He joins up, and before you can say “splish splash I was takin’ a bath,” the team is on its way to the unofficial World Championships in Milan. 

Directed by Oliver Parker and written by Aschlin Ditta, “Swimming With Men” is a fun and likable comedy filled with good humor and a willingness to tug on your heartstrings. 


Michael Calleri reviews films for Night & Day. Contact him at