Much like its tormented subject, Julian Schnabel's marvelous film about the last days of Vincent van Gogh stares at and savors its world and then renders what it's seen in incandescent art. Far from another reductive life-of-the-artist Oscar job, At Eternity's Gate is committed to what its subject saw -- how its subject saw -- rather than just how commandingly its star reels through his big speeches. Since the star in this case is Willem Dafoe, viewers likely would be satisfied watching a great actor let rip, but Dafoe's performance is searching and tender, his van Gogh struggling to bear the weight of the beauty he sees. He and Schnabel have crafted a uniquely illuminating and non-didactic portrait -- not of the artist himself, exactly, but of the artist's perceptions.
Probing the painter's senses as he tramps about the south of France, Schnabel's film is drunk with light, a little touched in the head itself, giving over to van Gogh's perspective through gorgeously disorienting POV shots. Flares of light seem to singe the camera lens, and often the lower third of the screen goes a little hazy, the foliage no longer specific stalks and leaves but now its smeared essence. That, of course, suggests van Gogh's work; a painter of significance himself, Schnabel (Before Night Falls, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) has mastered the depiction of artistic creation onscreen. Here he shows us one painting's journey from conception to near completion. His film omits the wiki-history info-dump scenes common in lesser biopics, instead steeping us in the mind and senses of a painter who never got the word that his way of seeing would one day shape the world's.