Film Review: Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti

Famed artist's years in Tahiti, captured on location in a sympathetic French biopic.
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Dire financial problems helped drive artist Paul Gauguin to Tahiti in 1891. Once there, he created some of his most famous pieces, but returned destitute to France a few years later. Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti examines his time on the island in detail, focusing on his work as much as his relationships.

First seen working as a day laborer in Paris, Gauguin (played by Vincent Cassel) begs his friends to accompany him to Tahiti, at that time a French colony. The artist makes plans for his wife Mette (Pernille Bergendorff) and children to come with him, but she refuses. Undaunted, he sets off alone.

On Tahiti, Gauguin works feverishly, spending his money on canvas and paints rather than food. Afflicted by diabetes, he suffers a heart attack and recuperates in a clinic. Even there he begs his neighbor Jotépha (Pua-Taï Hikutini) for supplies so he can continue painting.

Without enough funds to survive in the port, Gauguin sets off for the remote Taravao Plateau. There he meets friendly locals in an encampment. Tehura (Tuheï Adams), daughter of a tribal member, agrees to leave with Gauguin and act as his wife. When they move into a hut together, Tehura is drawn to both Jotépha and to the local church—or at least the idea of attending services. Gauguin meanwhile throws himself into his work, using Tehura as both model and inspiration.

Deluc, one of four credited writers, skips almost all the biographical details about Gauguin. His earlier career, his family, his feuds and friendships with other artists, even the sales of his works barely emerge in the film. In a way, Deluc is flattening his canvas just as Gauguin did when he pursued Cloisonnism, a style of painting that focused more on planes than perspective.

Gauguingoes deeply into the artist's process—how he sketched, carved, painted—while spending little or no time on the religion, politics and economics that oppressed him. Likewise, cinematographer Pierre Cottereau focuses on the grit and grime of Gauguin's day-to-day routine, only rarely pulling back to reveal glorious Tahitian landscapes. Maybe that's what it was like for Gauguin—hours of drudgery with moments of ecstatic beauty.

Cassel, one of France's singular talents, delivers an absorbing performance, committing to his role on both mental and physical levels. His Gauguin is a man on the move, impatient, headstrong, defiant in the face of disease and defeat. Adams is appealing as Tehura, even if she doesn't always capture all her character's complications. The other performers, the Tahitian settings, Emmanuelle Cuillery's production design and the score by Warren Ellis are all exemplary.

And yet little in Gauguin will come as a surprise. Sadly, there were no lucky breaks or happy turns in his life once he reached Tahiti. He sacrificed everything for art, and died a pauper. Deluc does a fair job showing what happened, but doesn't offer much more.

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