Like Watching Paint Dry

The Van Gogh Movie That Will Make You Hate Art

I saw the At Eternity’s Gate movie. It screened at the local film society, one showing, Friday at 6 PM. I approached my wife the genius painter, and said, “Hey, do you want to see the Van Gogh movie that Julian Schnabel directed?” She looked interested. Not as interested as when I told her I’d bought tickets to Aquaman, but still interested.

Like Aquaman, this movie features Willem Dafoe. He definitely looks like Van Gogh. Though maybe he leans a little too old for the part, there’s basically no role Willem Dafoe can’t play effectively. He brings a few grace notes to this drawn-out dirge.

The first 20 minutes of the movie show Van Gogh running through various ugly fields to a soundtrack of tinkly piano music. Schnabel uses out-of-focus shaky handheld camera work, occasionally blurring half of the screen, because that is the Artistic Process. While this was going on, I looked over at my wife, who was twitching restlessly in her seat. That’s usually what I do at movies, so this was a bad sign.

“This camera work is going to make me sick,” she said.

AT ETERNITY’S GATE ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Written by: Jean-Claude Carrière, Julian Schnabel, Louise Kugelberg
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Issac, Mads Mikkelsen
Running time: 111 min.


Van Gogh falls asleep on a hill a couple of times. He has some Intense Conversations About Art with Paul Gauguin, played by Oscar Issac,  who five years ago was an actor we didn’t have to deal with but now we have to deal with him. More tinkly piano music plays during a very long and depressing segment in an insane asylum. The movie reveals that Van Gogh was a miserable shit who did terrible things while enveloped by insanity. Every once in a while, my wife would lean in and start whispering angrily to me.

I started to think about other Van Gogh movies, like the very great Lust For Life, starring Kirk Douglas and Sir Anthony Quinn. Now, that movie was heartbreaking and vibrant and melodramatic, and even fun in some places, filled with of set pieces in brilliant color. It’s one of the best movies about art ever made.



At Eternity’s Gate, on the other hand, seemed to have been shot through the grimmest Instagram filter, a mournful elegy and a long whine that Philistines don’t understand the True Nature Of Art. It’s abstract and exclusive. Kirk Douglas had a Lust For Life. Schnabel directs Dafoe to have a Lust For Death. After a certain point, I found myself wishing for an early grave as well.

Next came Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo, from 1990, which hewed a little grittier than Lust For Life, the Vincente Minnelli film from the 1950s:


But Vincent & Theo  had dramatic tension, a little snap. Schnabel spends plenty of time on Theo in At Eternity’s Gate, but his scenes also can’t escape the piano music and sad gazes. The Van Gogh brothers live in freezing, peeling rooms. Vincent cries in Theo’s arms in a nuthouse bed for a scene that seems to go on forever and a day.

And then it all ends with the extremely controversial thesis that stupid teenage boys murdered Van Gogh because they didn’t understand him, just like we don’t understand Julian  Schnabel, who makes cameras murky and let’s us decide whether or not that’s good. I’ll let my wife take over from here. She posted angrily on her Facebook page:

“The movie was pretentious and grating, and surprisingly flat visually. Ridiculously shaky camera effects and blurry bottom screens were silly ways to show VG’s vision of the world. It had way too many scenes of feet running in grass and embarrassingly cliche Christ-like poses of Van Gogh, with irritating music. Obviously, the director made these choices intentionally to highlight a psychological decent into madness, but I was underwhelmed. I liked the scene with the priest and a few nicely framed shots that felt related to his paintings. I expected the whole movie to be like that. Meh.”

When it was all over, she said to me, “I fucking hated that.”

This concludes my review of the At Eternity’s Gate movie.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

One thought on “Like Watching Paint Dry

  • August 22, 2021 at 6:13 am

    I dont know whether the reviewer caught wind that someone else was saying this film was drawn out, or whether it is fashionable to dislike Julian Schnabel, or if not recreating his favourite scenes from Van Gogh paintings, or those of his wife, are the issues here, but the high camp of the hams portraying Vincent before make mental illness dramatic when in fact it might just be mostly dramatic for the sufferer and rarely so for the voyeur. In the case of what seems a fashion conscious reviewer who demands to be entertained, the interest shown in the issue of mental illness seems to cross that expectation that narrowly defines what film should be according to the above reviled account. I enjoyed the Artist philosophising about painting, I enjoyed the way voices echoed over and over in a representation of obsessive recall, I loved the difficulty expressed by ordinary people like Neal Pollack when confronted by their interpretation of someone quite different to them. I often remark in dramatic representation that things are often not as highlighted as portrayed and have done so again in this film where many of the cliche’d tropes are happily missing.


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