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Stealing many a technique from far better filmmakers, Julian Schnabel botches this obviously personal film about Van Gogh. It fails to deliver any insight into the artist and is surprisingly stupid in terms of its treatment of basic themes.
Schnabel begins by stealing the technique developed over 40 years ago by director Peter Watkins, best known for his "Edvard Munch" film that JS certainly has seen. It is the "You Are There" approach to presenting period material, ironically adapted from the 1950s CBS TV series of that name (CBS Films is releasing "At Eternity's Gate"). Watkins uses the conceit of a first-person camera documentary crew on the scene photographing and interviewing characters from previous centuries (before cinema had been invented), and Schnabel repeatedly uses hand-held & first-person camera that proves to be annoying and distracting from letting the viewer enter Van Gogh's 19th Century milieu.
For Vincent's immediate point-of-view we are subjected repetitively to camera mounted on (presumably) star Dafoe's chest aimed at his legs walking and the ground beneath, a technique Nic Roeg used memorably in the 1967 Hardy adaptation of "Far From the Madding Crowd". Completing a trifecta of self-defeating steals, many shots from Van Gogh's POV have the bottom half of the camera lens covered with vaseline to create a blurring effect, an artistic approach which was developed in the 1960s by the unsung masters of stylization (or over-stylization if one is not a fan of their work), the son/father team of Jean-Gabriel and Quinto Albicocco, famed for their classic adaptation of "Le Grand Meaulnes".
Another disastrous technique has several dialogue exchanges repeated on the soundtrack in mind-numbing fashion, as if our heavy-handed director was trying to underline their importance. Main themes covered in the movie revolve around Van Gogh and Gauguin's differing ideas about what drives the creative artist and how he should approach his art, but even though actors do a good job at their craft (acting), both Dafoe and Oscar Isaac, the dialog is blunt and unsubtle, like the rest of the movie.
Worse yet, Schnabel refuses to let the viewer do any independent viewing, forcing one to look at what the director wants, especially in the ill-advised shaky hand-held sections. In a film about art one should be permitted to rove arouund looking at what's in the frame independent of such artificial spoon-feeding, and even when a painting or the creation of one (by Schnabel or Dafoe's hand) is shown we are denied the chance to linger and absorb the content.
So we are left with a remote, unmoving portrait of the artist as a troubled individual, gleaning next to nothing about him or his art. Post-movie emphasis (in the end credits) on a notebook of drawings not discovered till 2016 is strictly a gimmicky anti-climax, worthy of a horror movie director rather than an artist turned director.
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