Vainglory and the Oscars 2— “At Eternity’s Gate”

Another calculated Oscar gamble fails, because it lacks a compelling narrative.

In early 2017, when Julian Schnabel decided to commit millions of dollars to putting the last few years of Vincent van Gogh’s life on film, “Loving Vincent” was still in production. Had Schnabel and his star, Willem Dafoe seen what would eventually be a wonderfully inventive and beautifully executed film they couldn’t hope to match, they might have picked a different project, not just to avoid audience fatigue, to avoid an unhappy comparison.

Or not.

Because of its unusual technique (It’s composed of hundreds of thousands of frames hand painted in oil, in van Gogh’s trademark style.) “Loving Vincent” took years to produce. Maybe its existence seemed as unlikely to Schnabel as its reality turned out to be beautiful to us.

(For more about “Loving Vincent” see my in depth review at: https://medium.com/@Penseur/loving-vincent-how-the-ignorami-killed-a-masterpiece-in-oil-c533c80262d3)

No matter why, eight weeks into its domestic run it appears Schnabel’s choice has become a commercial failure. The box office for “At Eternity’s Gate” has just topped $2 million. The international box office is barely more. Clearly this isn’t a money-maker. Nor does its story break new ground. In fact, the tale’s now slightly worn. So why did Schnabel and Dafoe make this film? Consider the timing; they released it in the midst of a crowded holiday schedule, just before Thanksgiving, dooming it commercially, but allowing it to qualify for the upcoming awards season.

Schnabel and Dafoe had Oscar on their minds.

Schnabel’s been close before. In 2007 he got an Oscar nomination for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, a little seen but critically acclaimed effort that’s since been Americanized and lightened and rereleased in a more commercial form, “The Upside”.

Dafoe’s been even closer, tantalizingly so. Over a highly successful 30 year career he’s been nominated for three Golden Globes and three Oscars, two Best Actor Oscars, and one Best Supporting Actor Oscar for last years “The Florida Project”, and he’s come away empty-handed every time.

In May of 2017 Schnabel had his heart set on his project. He needed an actor who bore at least a passing resemblance to Vincent van Gogh. And Dafoe, having just finished “The Florida Project”, needed a film to showcase his talent.

It was a match made in Hollywood, by Hollywood, and for Hollywood; never meant to succeed, just to impress, and it did impress, enough to win Dafoe a Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival.

But that’s where it’ll stop, because the film has a fatal flaw — it lacks anything like a compelling narrative.

van Gogh’s “At Eternity’s Gate”

The entire film is a take-off on van Gogh’s painting, “At Eternity’s Gate”, depicting an elderly man apparently approaching life’s end in a pair of thoroughly worn-out boots.

I’ve yet to find the screenplay, but I’m curious to see whether at any point the writers included this camera direction: “Angle on van Gogh’s boots for several minutes as he walks across the field,” because that’s what we do, several times in the film, watch Dafoe put on his worn boots, then watch not him, but them, the boots, as he walks across a floor or field, then watch him again as he takes them off.

Dafoe pauses after one walk, before taking another.

Schnabel seems to have developed such a worn boot fetish it’s made him forget his actor, his plot, and his audience. I’m not sure van Gogh’s boots would have been interesting, but I’m sure Dafoe’s aren’t, and no matter how artsy the pretense, not even Academy insiders are going to vote an Oscar for minute after minute of old boots in action.

This is something I might appreciate as an easter egg — oh, look, Schnabel’s had Dafoe wear an identical pair of boots — but Schnabel’s used this image to anchor a 111 minute feature film…

… and it drags.

Not just because of the boots. Dafoe spends an enormous amount of screen time alone, interacting with nothing and no one, with little chance to express van Gogh’s inner turmoil. He spends a great deal of the film staring into distances, lapsing once into a smile, but otherwise staring at — nothing. This may have been the real van Gogh. If so, he was rather a tedious person.

Another of many a long and expressionless gaze. Was van Gogh stoic except on canvas?

We see him interact angrily with village boys and some adults who don’t appreciate his art, and watch as he’s committed and released, and even observe him inside several asylums, at one point enduring a long scene in which Theo, his brother comforts him, while Vincent remains expressionless. Perhaps accurate, but not cinematic. We look at his outside, but we never get a look inside van Gogh. Dafoe’s exterior shows nothing of van Gogh’s interior.

The tortured artist, about to be tortured by ten year olds.

In the end we’re left with the feeling there may have been the basis for a movie somewhere in what we’ve seen, but not an actual movie, as though what Schnabel’s produced and presented to us is his study for a film just as prior to painting, van Gogh produced studies.

Study for “Starry Night”

The difference is — Vincent didn’t stop at the studies, he went on to give us the paintings.

“Starry Night” Vincent van Gogh