Oscar Isaac in the role of painter Paul Gauguin is trouble you see coming from a mile away—the kind you live to regret falling for anyway.
He’s a holier-than-thou painting bro with a “slightly misanthropic” streak (Isaac’s generous wording), eyes glinting with disgust in his first close-up. Pipe in one hand, book in another, dressed all black save for an elegant red scarf, he slams a table and shames the Impressionists gathered around him: “They call themselves artists but behave like bureaucrats,” he huffs after a theatrical exit. “Each of them is a little tyrant.”
From a few tables away, another painter, Vincent van Gogh, watches in awe. He runs into the street after Gauguin like a puppy dog.
Within a year, a reluctant Gauguin would move in with van Gogh in a small town in the south of France, in the hope of fostering an artists’ retreat away from stifling Paris. Eight emotionally turbulent weeks later, van Gogh would lop off his left ear with a razor, distraught that his dearest friend planned to leave him for good. He enclosed the bloody cartilage in wrapping marked “remember me,” intending to have it delivered to Gauguin by a frightened brothel madam as a bizarre mea culpa. The two never spoke again.
Or so the last two years of Vincent van Gogh’s life unspool in Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, itself a kind of lush, post-Impressionistic memoir of the Dutchman’s tormented time in Arles, France. (Not to mention artistically fruitful time: Van Gogh churned out 200 paintings and 100 watercolors and sketches before the ear fiasco landed him in an insane asylum.)
Isaac plays Gauguin like an irresistibly bad boyfriend, a bemused air of condescension at times wafting straight into the audience: “Why’re you being so dramatic?” he scoffs directly into the camera, inflicting a first-person sensation of van Gogh’s insult and pain.
Yet in the painter’s artistic restlessness, Isaac, 37, sees himself: “That desire to want to do something new, to want to push the boundaries, to not just settle for the same old thing and get so caught up with the minutia of what everyone thinks is fashionable in the moment.” He talks about “staying true to your own idea of what’s great.” He talks about “finding something honest.”