The Van Gogh Biopic At Eternity’s Gate: Real Art, Humanely Portrayed

But On the Basis of Sex is inane, partisan cheerleading for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The casting of actors for their expressive faces and vivid personalities in large and small roles is one of the triumphs of Julian Schnabel’s Vincent Van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate. But first, before detailing why, a brief word on the politics of modern movie faces: A fascinating, then discomforting, F/X in Aquaman manipulates the middle-aged features of Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman, playing denizens of the Deep, so that they look youthful again. They’re digitally Botoxed, a silly deception we also see in On the Basis of Sex, in the casting of dewy, bucktoothed Felicity Jones as the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Girl Scout in a pencil skirt. One suffers through this sappy hagiography, looking for an explanation of what would make a Supreme Court justice, in old age, offend protocol and inappropriately comment on presidential behavior, as RBG recently has made a habit of doing. No rationale is provided in this hagiography that is obviously conceived as shameless partisan advocacy, manipulating viewers with its political narcissism, gender cheerleading, and propagandistic rhetoric. In short, the altered human face, ever youthful, becomes an aesthetic offense that also reduces our sense of humanity. 

Willem Dafoe, as Schnabel’s Van Gogh, does not simply give a performance, he is the film’s material. The close identification of an actor with a film’s topic is part of the way that Schnabel encourages us to relate to Van Gogh. The effect he achieves is the opposite of the political divisiveness motivating Hollywood’s RBG agitprop.