Viewer’s Discretion: ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ and ‘Requiem’

‘AT ETERNITY’S GATE’ (AMAZON, APPLE, GOOGLE PLAY, VUDU, YOUTUBE)

It seems obvious from the moment he appears on the screen that Willem Dafoe was meant to play Vincent Van Gogh, even though there’s nothing particularly Van Gogh-ish about his appearance. And yet, as he wanders through the fever dream of “At Eternity’s Gate,” Dafoe is Van Gogh.

Director Julian Schnabel renders this biography of the legendary painter through Van Gogh’s own perception of what he is experiencing. At times, the scenes are focused, emotional, providing moments to talk about art and expression, only to be displaced by something scattered, hard to parse. Clarity becomes stricken with confusion and while at some points, Van Gogh can be approached, engaged, other times he is taken off guard by what life brings to him and responds with anger and disorientation, unsure of what he is up against and how to make it stop.

Schnabel captures mental illness well here, coupled with Dafoe’s sincere performance as a man who doesn’t quite understand what is different about the way he perceives the world, and why other people disdain that vision so. But Schnabel doesn’t achieve this through some high-tech means, transforming the screen into Van Gogh Vision that animates the world in the style of his paintings. Instead, Schnabel uses focus and glare, and trembling and other disarming camera techniques to align what Van Gogh perceives and what he renders in a beautiful, horrible fusion.

While presenting the fog and confusion of what it meant to be Vincent Van Gogh, Schnabel is blessed with Dafoe’s presence. The real power of Dafoe’s achievement is to make Van Gogh human, to bring him off of the pedestal and allow us to look him in the eye, to maybe even see what we might have in common with him as a person rather than holding him at a distance to gawk at the difference that we called genius.

‘REQUIEM’ (NETFLIX)

Wales has started to get more attention on British TV shows as the kind of place where awful things might happen, or at least will offer the creepy ambiance to make you certain that something awful has happened. With “Requiem,” that circumstance has made the logical evolution and moved into the realm of folk horror, where, as usual, an outsider visits a rural town and uncovers some kind of secret that might involve a conspiracy of locals that threatens the visitor. And often, that conspiracy involves the supernatural.

“Requiem” takes this standard structure and twists it a little bit when renowned cellist Matilda Grey (Lydia Wilson) follows a personal tragedy with the discovery that some aspects of her life are stricken with secrets. Along with her accompanist Hal (Joel Fry), Matilda bolts from her planned American tour to visit the Welsh village of Penllynith, where a young girl disappeared in 1994. Matilda believes her mother was involved in some aspect of that disappearance.

Of course, Matilda’s arrival causes distress among villagers, puts the local police on high alert, brings other people out of the woodwork after laying low for years and places Matilda in a creepy old mansion that may or may not have played a role in the disappearance. The mansion is the inheritance of a shifty Australian guy, named Nick (James Frecheville), who seems to want to help out. All the pieces swirl around as the Matilda delves into the mystery deeper, with a hint toward ghostly and devilish happenings.

What “Requiem” does, it does well, placing the horror more in the psychological realm, but never doing so in order to bait and switch. As Matilda’s experience becomes more fraught, so does the atmosphere, and “Requiem does well in mixing the heightened tension with character development, as villagers are forced to face how past events shape their present, and how secrets unraveling operate like dominos falling, and often out of anyone’s control.

This is a great little horror show that doesn’t rely on cheap thrills or special effects to get under your skin or to relate how real life can mirror such terror even without ghosts and such.


Originally published at https://www.berkshireeagle.com on May 3, 2019.

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