Gauguin (Gauguin – Voyage de Tahiti)

France (2017) Dir. Edouard Deluc

Paul Gauguin is a polarising figure in the history of art – retrospectively revered for his paintings and developing the style of Synthetism but loathed for his immoral lifestyle. As the original French title of this film suggests, the stage of his life being dramatised is his first visit to Tahiti from 1891 to 1893.

In his native France, Gauguin (Vincent Cassel) was already a well-known painter but his works were no longer selling. With a wife Mette (Pernille Bergendorff) and five children to support, Gauguin decides to Paris and head to the Polynesian islands to became a better painter but Mette refuses to go, forcing Gauguin to travel alone.

Shortly after his arrival in Papeete, Gauguin is hospitalised by a heart attack triggered by diabetes and malnutrition, tended to by fellow ex-pat doctor Henri Vallin (Malik Zidi). Upon his recovery, Gauguin heads off to the remote village of Mataiera where he meets island girl Tehura (Tuheï Adams), soon to be his muse and his wife.

Though handsomely shot and beautifully acted, Edouard Deluc’s film doesn’t offer much of an insight into Gauguin, the painter nor even Gauguin the man. It can’t be labelled a bio-pic as it only focuses on one stage of his storied life and with much dramatic licence taken with some of the details, it is as if the idea is to portray Gauguin as a martyr to his art and avoid exploring the personality that has sullied his name among art lovers.

Paintings and wood carved statues are created, inspired and influenced by the traditional and physical aesthetic charms of his exotic new surroundings yet Gauguin’s art style isn’t once under any kind of scrutiny, aside from a brief discussion at a Paris exhibition at the start of the film. Therefore, Deluc’s assumption is the audience has some prior knowledge of Gauguin and doesn’t feel the need to proffer any background for the uninitiated.

Gauguin’s life story is quite the tale and worthy of an extensive biography beyond the 97 minutes this film offers from three years of his life and probably still won’t scratch the surface. For the purpose of this tale, we meet Gauguin in a state of ennui, poverty and lacking in inspiration, unable to sell any paintings and fed up with Paris.

None of his esteemed artist friends are willing to up sticks to Tahiti with him but they do give him a good send off which he treats like a night of torture. In one of the few cinematic moments of the film, the sound of applause seamlessly morphs into the sound of pouring tropical rain as we jump from dingy bar in Paris to a small shack in Papeete, yet despite this change of location the muse still hasn’t shown herself.

The courting process between Gauguin and Tehura is a brief affair – literally comprising of them locking eyes, Tehura’s father asking if Gauguin is after a wife, Tehura agreeing to go back to Gauguin’s hut and bingo! In this version Mette had written to Gauguin to say her family had urged her to end their marriage but in real life they didn’t divorce until 1894.

Undisclosed here is the fact Tehura was only 13 years-old when she and 48 year-old Gauguin “married”, as well as being the model of many of his nude paintings once his inspiration returned. This is part of why art lovers struggle to differentiate between Gauguin the artist and Gauguin the man, but it is important to note that he isn’t presented as predatory or paedophilic in any way.

Actress Tuheï Adams – 17 at the time of filming – has a developed body but is not presented as exploited or groomed, although at 17, the occasional nudity and lone sex scene is uncomfortable to watch with this knowledge. Gauguin’s paintings from this period are vibrant, colourful and alive with tropical essence, capturing the beauty and spirit of the island so maybe we can accept that his artistic intentions were genuine.

They don’t however reflect the poverty, unhappiness and mental strain on Gauguin that saw the marriage disintegrate and Gauguin repatriated back to France penniless, unwell and distraught. Though an important part of Gauguin’s time in Tahiti, it again doesn’t provide us with a compelling enough exploration into his life or the complexities of his personality that drove his passions in art and beyond.

If Deluc’s film is to be believed, Gauguin was the archetypal tortured artist, a genius on a plane most people couldn’t understand, ahead of his time and unable to bring himself down to the level of others. The result is a clash of wills and personalities and for every stage the stars are aligned there are far more when everything is in disarray. But this singular snapshot is insufficient in offering this in any context, making Gauguin an erratic enigma.

Deluc doesn’t make it easy for himself in being selective with the story he is telling, so we applaud him for giving it a go and he does a lot right in piquing our interest in Gauguin, but he could have made a deeper impression had the film been as dynamic as Guaguin’s paintings. It is lovely to look at but relentlessly sombre in tone not to mention irresponsible in glossing over some of the finer details, specifically Tehura’s age.

Vincent Cassel reaffirms his status as one of France’s best actors, committing himself to this role with his scrawny, wizened appearance set off by his unkempt beard and expressive wide eyes. Whatever sort of person Gauguin was Cassel makes us believe in him, even the negative aspects, in this typically mesmerising performance gelling well with his impressive debutant co-star Adams.  

Gauguin is a film probably best suited to those who are familiar with the painter so they can pick the bones out the liberties taken with the facts, whilst neophytes will find this a dour and meandering tale of gorgeous tableaux but sadly little else.

7 thoughts on “Gauguin (Gauguin – Voyage de Tahiti)

  1. Great review. It is a pity that they did not manage to offer a great insight into Gauguin, but it seems like a movie for me because I am not that familiar with this painter, would love to see Cassel act and I am still kind of in a “Polynesia adventure” mood from my own travel blog posts 🙂

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    1. Thanks! This could have been a big prestige film for France but apparently it ran into some bother over the issue of Tehura’s age being glossed over and didn’t make the big overseas festivals where it missed out on any international acclaim it *might* have had, instead it was quietly snuck out in French cinemas.

      Cassel is awesome as ever but Gauguin seems like a self-absorbed toad! :-/

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    1. Actually they met when she was 14, she was 22 when they married. Priscilla said in her autobiography they didn’t consummate the relationship until after marriage on Elvis’ insistence.

      Jerry Lee Lewis however DID marry his own cousin when she was 13 (although it didn’t last) which was legal in his home state. i guess the moral of the story is that rock’n’roll fans are more forgiving than art lovers! 😛

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      1. Whew. That’s a relief. Although I bet 14 would have been legal in Memphis.

        When you listen to Elvis gospel records, we are convinced he could never get involved in anything immoral.

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      2. Well, Elvis did have affairs on film sets whilst dating Priscilla, like Ann-Margaret when shooting Viva Las Vegas. What a Hound Dog eh? :-/

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