The artist's quest to reproduce and represent truth through their work finds an eager, earnest platform in Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate, a Vincent van Gogh biopic that seeks neither to conform to nor resist the conventions of the cinematic biopic but to tell its own story its own way - to represent the truth as it knows it. Van Gogh himself might have approved, though if he got away with similar quirks in his own work due to his genius, it's questionable to what extent Schnabel can get away with it too. The good news is that his return to filmmaking is also a return to a canvas that encourages the idiosyncrasies of his artistic expression; the bad news is that this canvas doesn't necessarily support those idiosyncrasies, and At Eternity's Gate is a less powerful picture for that.
Earnestness is what courses through this movie, a sense of unabridged passion and unfettered determination to depict the truth of its every scene. Truth, through the vivid lens of Benoit Delhomme's striking cinematography, can be a startling thing to witness in such crude form as one witnesses it here. Van Gogh's bold, hasty brush strokes were the product of a wild mind full of awesome inspiration; Schnabel's are not, his wildness often seeming forced, his inspiration vague and insipid. A brush stroke can convey a wealth of information and evoke an even greater wealth of emotion, and Schnabel fares best when he allows similarly solitary agents to accomplish their best in this regard. Willem Dafoe's van Gogh sees this most talented actor at his least guarded, and rarely is At Eternity's Gate better than when it simply centres upon his face. Dafoe appears to be trying to convey the sense of the tortured, often elated soul within this figure, too frequently undercut by Schnabel's more strained methods in pursuit of the same goal. While the actor is open to anything germane to his characterization, the director is just open to everything at all - it's an admirably earnest approach, and it's never dull, but it's never fully satisfying either.
Dafoe strides across rugged landscapes in search of truth, a handheld camera alongside or behind him, there with one master portraying another master on a course for the sublime at any cost. It's an arduous journey with as many triumphs along the way as travails. Emmanuelle Seigner is bewitching in a role that seems to flummox Schnabel (female characters regularly have through his work); Oscar Isaac's Paul Gauguin occupies far more of his time and enjoys far more of the screenwriters' sagacity, though Isaac is dismally miscast and very far out of his depth. Misjudgements, in fact, plague this movie, though not entirely to its detriment - they're often merely manifestations of a profound intelligence and an even more profound artistry spooling onto the screen, raw and unrefined. There are those, like Dafoe, who revel in such a process, who are capable of using it to showcase their genius to its fullest. And there are those who require a deal more refinement to showcase theirs. At Eternity's Gate is a stimulating confluence of the two, its compromised quality indicative of their conflicting natures.