Tragedy & Transcendance

If you go to the cinema over Thanksgiving weekend and watch two current-release movies, the “compares” are as numerous as you choose to recognize.

Both films cover the late careers of two gifted yet troubled artists who died far too young – describing their efforts to find fame with artistic integrity, their risings and fallings in art and life, and their often-desperate search for meaning, companionship and some satisfying version of romantic love.

All the same, the biggest “contrast” doesn’t hit you until you read a line of text after the last scene of Bohemian Rhapsody, informing us that Freddie Mercury died of AIDS after spending his final six years in a loving relationship with a man he’d met during his time with Queen. Vincent Van Gogh, as portrayed with monumental grace by Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate, would have given every one of the few dimes he made for somebody to write such words after his death.

As Mercury himself penned in one of his very best rock songs: “Can anybody find me… somebody to love?!”

Of course, the two films are wildly unrelated – the first the story of an impoverished artist with deep psychological wounds in Paris and the South of France in the late 1800s, the second the tale of a wealthy, self-indulgent and self-destructive rock star in the 1970s and 1980s. Only when you watch them over a single weekend do you start compiling the “compares” and pondering the sole, heartbreaking ”contrast.”

Both movies are very much worth seeing, especially in a world with few screens reserved for anything other than Disney or Marvel. The one about Mercury leaves you sad but inspired, and the one about Van Gogh leaves you sad and sad.

Eternity’s Gate director Julian Schnabel and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme are both painters in real life, and at least in the film, Dafoe comes off as no slouch at the easel either. The artistic talent on both sides of the camera shines through as we see Vincent paint picture after picture – he painted them quickly, believing that applying any more carefulness removes art from its true place close to heart, soul and tumultuous passion.

Surely on purpose, we don’t get to see Vincent starting any of his best-known works, like those iconic sunflowers or spinning stars or that lively yet lonely café at night – though we do catch glimpses of them hanging on walls or piled atop stacks. What might have been the thrill of that recognition rewards Van Gogh lovers as some of his best-loved paintings walk into the shot as real people, teasing our knowledge that he will paint them into immortality someday.

There are, essentially, three different Van Gogh portrayals in Eternity’s Gate. One is Dafoe’s lowkey voiceover sprinkled throughout, typically over a blank dark screen. Another is Dafoe’s tireless walking and climbing through the Provencal fields, forests, hills and mountains, a boundless energy carrying him and the easel on his back toward his next rendezvous with art. The third and final portrayal puts Dafoe with other people. With the exception of his brother Theo, who sent him a monthly allowance for years, nearly all those encounters turn out very badly.

There is a central, excruciating scene when schoolchildren on an outing with their teacher stumble on Van Gogh at work in the wilderness. Though at first cute and curious about the picture in progress, they soon move to ridiculing this very strange bearded man, joined in cruelty by their teacher, and eventually knock over his palette full of mixed paints. Van Gogh’s over-the-top counterattack inspires the townspeople of Arles to throw rocks at him on the street, beat him up at every opportunity and eventually have him committed to a string of horrific asylums.

Dafoe is magnificent in every second of Eternity’s Gate, and like Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody, looks the part to an almost scary degree. Schnabel’s storytelling is artfully artless, a slow, talky “art house film” from years past that at times resembles a documentary and at other times a home movie. Also convincing are Rupert Friend as Theo and Oscar Isaac as the Paul Gauguin that Vincent tried so hard to please, including the famous cutting off of his ear as a sick gift.

If Dafoe is a perfectly craggy and red-bearded Northern European, Malek looks almost as exotic as the rock star he portrays. Mercury’s roots (if hardly the name he took legally, to his parent’s shame) are in ancient Persia before Islam in the Zoroastrian faith, with a side order of Indian ethnicity and childhood on the island of Zanzibar. The Mercury who moved with his parents to London at age 18 is small, buck-toothed and (we know now) struggling with his sexual identity. The band he joined and quickly came to dominate, after naming the group Queen, helped him find the personal strength to become one of the most outlandish and charismatic performers any stage has ever seen.

In a brilliant bit of bookending around one long flashback, Bohemian Rhapsody as directed by Bryan Singer opens with Freddie’s limo trip to Wembley Stadium. He is heading to what would be the group’s historic 20-minute Live Aid set, often considered the single greatest rock concert of all time. If you want to understand why so many people think that, watch the real Freddie with the real Queen for those 20 breathtaking minutes on YouTube. That’s how you watch Freddie. But if you want to be Freddie, even if only in his glory, join Malek on that huge stage at the climax of this film, with a Wembley crowd singing along as far as the camera can see and millions more watching on television around the world.

Malek pours his devastating AIDS diagnosis into our eyes from his, even as his lips mesmerize with courageous, defiant, wall-thundering versions of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Radio Gaga,” “Hammer to Fall” and (as cinema audiences weep with joy, sorrow and memory, until finally cheering on into the credit-rolling darkness) “We Are the Champions.”

Performances, and resemblances, are uncanny throughout, especially Lucy Boynton as Mary, the only woman Freddie ever loved, his friend unto death – and, of course, the three actors chosen to fill out Queen: Gwinlym Lee as lead guitarist Brian May, Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor and Joseph Mazzello as bassist John Deacon. Mike Myers is unrecognizable but fun as the gruff recording executive who lets Queen “get away,” believing no one would ever buy the records they insisted upon making.

There is a spectacular release, new life at the very moment of death, in all the greatest art – yes, in Van Gogh’s swirling paintings of nature but especially in music and theater, the two forms that Freddie Mercury was born to claim as his own. What we feel watching both films is a tiny sliver of the immortality these unforgettable artists sacrificed so much to achieve.

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