Willem Dafoe received his fourth Oscar nomination for portraying Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity's Gate.
At Eternity's Gate fittingly attempts an impressionistic examination of the life the tortured artist. I will say any film about van Gogh already peaks my interest as I find him an endlessly fascinating subject. I particularly appreciate Julian Schnabel's daring in his approach in this film as he tries to experience essentially every facet of van Gogh's mental state. Although the film brushes (no pun intended) rather than achieves greatness, due to a few inconsistent elements, one them being the camerawork at times where you sometimes only get the sense of what Schnabel and cinematographer Beonoit Delhomme are going for rather than simply experiencing.
An interesting thing about this performance is one could argue there are two potential distractions from the outset. One is while Willem Dafoe would seem ideal casting for van Gogh about twenty to thirty years ago, where is now he's over twenty years older than how old the actual van Gogh was when he died. Although this could be seen as a detriment I will say it never even becomes a distraction, as in a way the age of Dafoe helps to create essentially the idea of the wear of the man's life. It creates an even greater inherent sympathy to the character, as this is not a young man yelling at the world, rather an aging man being withered away by it. The other potential one is Dafoe makes no attempt at an accent reflective of van Gogh's heritage, however Schnabel, wisely, doesn't emphasize accents in any cast member rather seeming to wish to achieve more naturalistic turns. Again this never results into distraction, and it is easy to simply accept Dafoe as van Gogh, in this version of his story. A very atypical one to be sure, which leaves a potentially another difficulty this being the idea of the director's film, but again this is not always a limitation not when you have the right actor working within this vision. Thankfully for this film we have the dynamic Dafoe, who typically doesn't just fade into the background even in minor supporting roles.
Many scenes of the film wish to bring us right within van Gogh's perspective, this is sometimes literally in POV shots, but also more figuratively, which are the more effective set ups I feel. One of the reasons being is with the figurative shots we are not only allowed to view the magnificent landscapes but also allowed to see the meaning of these spaces through Dafoe's performance. Dafoe does not just portray a man simply walking through a landscape, but rather realizes in these moments what they mean to Vincent. Dafoe's physical performance is an essential facet to the film as he manages to express the influence of these images essentially within Vincent. Of course this is at times in simply the reaction of joy at these sights, however it is never slight or simplistic in this regard. Dafoe makes these moments essentially these religious and spiritual experiences for the man. They are not only as such though as Dafoe's work conveys this intensity in his reactions in a way that evokes a certain mania nearly of a man overwhelmed within his senses. There is essentially a madness in this something that defines Dafoe's portrayal of Vincent. This is as Dafoe does not portray a man driven to madness due to being a tortured artist, but rather a mental illness that helps to define his art and his life.
Dafoe's approach to the character is brilliant, and very different from the more manic, though also brilliant, turn by Kirk Douglas. Douglas was a man seething in his pains, where Dafoe is fascinating in his alternative take. Dafoe presents a man in Vincent who fundamentally is unable to connect to the majority of other humans. Dafoe finds this very specific detachment, that is strange yet feels wholly natural in his performance. Dafoe's performance realizes this inability to connect in this most unusual way. In that he is not detached as this unemotional thing, but rather Dafoe expresses this difficulty in essentially the excessively emotional way the man exists, without being able to connect in the right way. I love the enthusiasm that Dafoe brings within Vincent's way of interacting with others yet within that makes it so awkward. Dafoe delivers this optimism within the eyes in these moments as he speaks to a random town person that is outstanding. In that he looks at them as though he is piercing through them towards some greater truth. There again is too much of an intensity within Vincent that Dafoe so effectively delivers, showing this way of alienating others essentially as his way of trying to connect to them is in this foreign method. This is not because Vincent desires it, but rather Dafoe portrays a man operating with a wholly different sense of reality.
Physically Dafoe also conveys this so effectively in his interactions with those around him. Again he's so good in bringing forth the way Vincent is so desperately trying to deliver some understanding yet fails to convey this in an appealing way. We see this in a moment where he is discussing his painting with a woman, but then turns to a man requesting to paint him. The eagerness, and randomness of this moment is so well expressed by Dafoe, as we see him turn off the woman in the moment, and not exactly endear himself to others in his way. The connection, and desire in his request is wholly honest in Dafoe's delivery, but distant through the desperation and apparent randomness of the request. This again is not a fixed understood desperation as played by Dafoe, rather it is the natural state of a man who is so far removed, and to him the request would have made perfect sense. Two of the people we do see him connect with are fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) and his brother Theo. This is only sort of, and Dafoe uses these moments to bring even more to life the struggle of existence for Vincent essentially due to his alternative perception of existence. With Gauguin, Dafoe shows Vincent as awkward and unstable, as he follows the far more sort of traditional rebel painter around, as their connection exists solely in Gauguin's respect for his work.
Dafoe, in his scenes with Isaac, portrays Vincent as this follower, who passionately expresses his ideas with him but with the same haphazard quality to this. The difference is Gauguin doesn't mind his eccentricities. In turn Dafoe depicts a bit of an attempt to essentially copy the man's manners to an extent, almost as though he think he can be normal by acting normal as the man does. This is of course as troublesome as being himself, as shown in is especially fantastic moment for Dafoe where the two artists use the same model. Gauguin doing so with a relaxed confidence, as well as through a prior agreement, meanwhile Vincent just joins in. Dafoe is great in the moment as he is exceptionally creepy from the perspective from the woman. As his eyes dart with interest and need, and even the movements are of this grotesque pantomime. Now Dafoe doesn't make Vincent this grotesque caricature in the moment, but rather his performance reveals the painful attempt towards normalcy that he is wholly incapable of. This is different than his moments with his brother. Now Dafoe does not suddenly show a normal man in these interactions, but rather reveals the ability to express himself without being rejected so easily given that his brother's love for him is unquestioned. Dafoe delivers a genuine poignancy in these moments as he portrays Vincent essentially releasing his emotions towards his brothers within all his vulnerabilities and sorrows seeking empathy from the one man he knows he will receive it from and not misinterpret his emotions.
Dafoe's work is marvelous as this realization of man of being tormented by the very thing that gives him joy. In the painting scenes for example are essential in these moments as Dafoe manages to show the invigoration of the act, but so that it is equally unnerving as this urge of instinct even more so than a desire of will. The duality Dafoe funnels into a natural consistency of the madness of the act as it is for Vincent. He is as enlivened as he is tortured by it and Dafoe makes it all of one spirit in his portrayal of every brush stroke. The same is seen in his moments of dealing with either potential subjects, or those interfering with the act. Dafoe in these moments delivers this urgency that nearly becomes a psychosis as though he is gripped within the act, and is indeed beyond himself. This making the need for that human connection all the palatable in his performance as the only means of escape possible, though Vincent consistently fails in this, as painting is in his easiest form expression yet alienating all the same. That otherwise just leaves the lonely man who is mentally unwell, and trying to hold onto anything in front of him. His moment of being left by Gauguin, is heartbreaking as Dafoe manages to bring such conviction in the horrible anguish that he portrays as a man trying and failing horribly to comprehend being abandoned in this way. Although the most powerful moments for in his performance come in two scenes of confessions of sorts, one right after being left by Gauguin leading to his ear being cut off, then later being met with by a priest (Mads Mikkelsen) who is trying to determine his sanity. The timidness that Dafoe brings to Vincent in these scenes is absolutely remarkable, as he portrays man at such a truly vulnerable point carefully trying to explain himself. Dafoe still projects the sense of distance but in a different way as he reveals the calm of the man attempting to clarify himself, even in his most insane acts. In this there is this very specific, and even inspiring passion within his eyes as Dafoe reveals the man that is Vincent as someone who simply sees towards an alternate plane. Dafoe conveys that this both damages and enlightens the man. This is as he explains his view on the life of Jesus to the priest, and in his explanation there is a real power of a man discovering some alternate truth that only he can see that is also reflects itself within his art, even if this torments him all the same. Therein lies the brilliance, beauty and tragedy, that Dafoe captures in his work. In that he expresses the transcendence in Vincent's perspective of the world that reveals itself through the genius of Vincent's work, yet all the same still brings such suffering as it leaves him unable to bridge the gap between himself and the rest of humanity.