'Gauguin' ('Gauguin: Voyage de Tahiti'): Film Review

Revisionist history.

Vincent Cassel stars as the titular painter during his Polynesian period in this shallow-focus biopic from French writer-director Edouard Deluc.

“There’s no more face or landscape worth painting here,” says Paul Gauguin (Vincent Cassel) in Paris just before he leaves for Oceania in French writer-director Edouard Deluc’s Gauguin (Gauguin: Voyage de Tahiti). Indeed, a lot of the post-Impressionist painter’s most famous works were still ahead of him and Deluc at least avoids trying to give an overview of the artist’s entire life, instead concentrating on just his first voyage to French Polynesia, which occurred between 1891 and 1893.

But even so, the strikingly shot feature, a veritable shallow-focus feast, tries to explore a vast array of topics, including but certainly not limited to nature, colonialism, religion, sexuality and art. This dilutes the film’s focus, with Gauguin also constantly struggling to make money and to keep up his end of an unlikely (and fictional) love triangle.

A bearded and emaciated Cassel throws himself into the lead with typical abandon and his committed performance is certainly a selling point. But even though the feature as a work of fiction was decently received locally, it was attacked on several fronts as a biopic, with most notably the film’s refusal to admit outright that Gauguin’s first wife was, by his own admission, only 13 when they married, a sore point for some French outlets. Perhaps expecting a similar fallout with the international press, the pic bypassed the fall festival corridor and was unceremoniously released in French theaters at the tail end of September. It has already been sold to several other territories, including Japan and Germany, and will probably work best for audiences who know Gauguin’s name and works but not much about his life.

The film starts in the French capital, imagined by Deluc and cinematographer Pierre Cottereau as a flat and drab, mostly whiskey-colored expanse that feels at once boring, cheerless and a little suffocating, directly explaining visually why someone like Gauguin would feel the urgent desire to escape to more exotically colored shores. Already here, the screenplay, credited to no less than four screenwriters including the director and Irreplaceable’s Thomas Lilti, takes liberties with the historical record or at least skips certain details. It is never explained, for example, that the artist managed to pay for his travels after a lucrative auction of some of his work at the Hotel Drouot, with Deluc perhaps preferring to paint Gauguin as an eternally struggling artist (there is no doubt he was poor quite often and not really recognized until after his death).

Gauguin thus gives us a neat cut from a depressed and quiet Paul, sitting alone at a table at his goodbye party in a bustling and rowdy Parisian café, to him painting solo at night in what looks like a feverish rapture. The setting couldn’t be more different: He’s standing up, darting around his canvas in a Polynesian hut made of palm leaves, with the rain lashing down outside and his work only lit by a couple of flickering candles. The message is clear: Gauguin isn’t interested in socializing and partying but wants to paint and dedicate himself to creating art, with the artist abandoning even his Danish wife (Pernille Bergendorff) and their five young children (besides a single letter announcing they won’t come over, they are never heard of or seen again).

In Deluc’s version of events, Gauguin isn’t necessarily looking for another female companion, and he initially seems content to roam the islands to catch and pick his own food and to paint to his heart’s content. But when two locals offer him their daughter, Tehura (Tuhei Adams, 17 when the film was shot), out of the blue, and she says she’d like to live with him, Paul doesn’t say no. Tehura and Koke, as Gauguin’s baptized name since his surname is unpronounceable for the Polynesians, first bond over art before even having sex, with Gauguin trying to paint her but Tehura also trying to draw him. But the film never quite makes explicit what, if any, Tehura's impact on Koke's art and artistic growth really was beyond modeling for some of his paintings.

Despite the fact the lead and his young companion finally seem to be physically quite compatible as well, Tehura also seems interested in the strapping neighborhood kid, Jotepha (Pua-Tai Hikutini, looking good in the ensemble’s most thankless Polynesian role). And she’s also fascinated by the fact Jotepha and her other Polynesian acquaintances regularly go to church in their white finery. But Deluc never connects the church’s strict rules for matrimony to Tehura’s desire for two men and by making the woman a composite character, he has inadvertently turned Gauguin into a monogamous creature, which is quite the opposite of what the historical record suggests.

The painter himself isn’t on board with organized religion and prefers to be feral and free, like the locals. This, of course, could have offered fertile ground for an exploration of the complexity of Gauguin’s position and character in Polynesia. But Leduc and his army of scribes also don’t quite manage to suggest to what extent the artist’s idea to live just like a local is kind of a fool’s dream for a Frenchman in French Polynesia. Indeed, the artist’s relationship with the only compatriot he regularly talks to, a doctor (a welcome if underused Malik Zidi), is more about getting drunk together and the doctor reminding him that he’s in bad health than anything as complex as the French’s position as rulers and colonizers of a faraway people. In the end, Paul’s free-spirit attitude is painted in a rather simplistic manner as something that simply seems to be part of his artistic character.

The love triangle as depicted here isn’t a strong enough structure to support either a traditional three-act configuration or a looser association of ideas connected to Gauguin and his life. What keeps the material from feeling to scattershot is the vitality of Cassel’s performance, which is full of life even when he’s not always in the best of health. He’s a much-needed charismatic center that almost manages to keep the entire enterprise together. Adams is also striking but, like all the Polynesians, her character is strictly seen from Koke’s perspective, which means how she feels about everything is suggested in a few glimpses rather than in a more overt and consistent manner.

What’s fascinating about most of the artist’s Polynesian output is that the greens — all-pervading on the islands, as nature runs wild and free pretty much everywhere — aren’t all that present in the paintings. Instead, Gauguin often foregrounds the primary colors and green finds its place as a secondary color alongside orange, purple and the rich, saturated browns of the skin tones. This means that Deluc and Cottereau are freed, artistically, as they can’t slavishly reproduce the suggestive color-palette of Koke’s Polynesian paintings. Indeed, treen is the dominant color during the daytime scenes and the film also contains more than a few nighttime sequences, with its rich blacks also contrasting with Gauguin’s output. The only concession the filmmakers have made is the decision to shoot practically everything in shallow focus, flattening the surfaces and reducing the screen to what’s essentially a gigantic canvas rather than a window onto another reality.

The impressively lyrical score by Australian-French composer Warren Ellis is dominated by warm and dark violin notes that seem to echo Koke's various moods. 

Production companies: Move Movie, Studiocanal, 120 Films, NJJ Entertainment
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Tuhei Adams, Malik Zidi, Pua-Tai Hikutini, Pernille Bergendorff, Marc Barbe, Paul Jeanson, Cedric Eeckout, Samuel Jouy
Director: Edouard Deluc
Screenplay: Edouard Deluc, Etienne Comar, Thomas Lilti, Sarah Kaminsky, inspired by Gauguin’s Noa Noa: Voyage a Tahiti
Producer: Bruno Levy
Director of photography: Pierre Cottereau
Production designer: Emmanuelle Cuillery
Costume designer: Celine Guignard Rajot
Editor: Guerric Catala
Music: Warren Ellis
Casting: Julie Navarro
Sales: Studiocanal

In French, Tahitian
102 minutes