By Michael McNulty
If you’re looking for a poorly sketched portrait of Paul Gauguin, then Edouard Deluc’s film, Gauguin, might be just the thing for you. This quasi-biography is a tepid attempt at painting the artists life in the romantic brush strokes that he surely would have liked to have been remember by.
A bedraggled Gauguin (Vincent Cassel) is desperate to leave Paris, “there’s not a face or a landscape worth painting,” he passionately explains to his paintbrush wielding brethren. No, for the man himself, Tahiti is where he wants to post his easel, where he will swim through oceans of inspiration, free from the suffocating smog of Paris and poverty. A quick, heartfelt goodbye to his wife and kids, who travelled from Copenhagen to Paris, and Gauguin has packed his bags and just about forgotten them.
Cut to Gauguin, painting furiously by candlelight in a shack with a roof thatched from palm throngs as tropical rains beat down around him. He’s still poor, his beard’s grown and he’s looking even rougher, but he’s painting with an energy that’s almost electric. So much so, that even after he suffers a minor heart attack, he finds the strength to paint on the hospital window that sits above his bed.
Gauguin, pestered by his Doctor to travel back to Tahiti’s main island (or better yet France) decides to skip town and travel high up into the mountains. After several unsuccessful days in the wilderness without food, the painter stumbles upon a village who take him in and over lunch offer the young Tehura (Tuheï Adams) as a bride.
Tehura provides a new lease of life and Gauguin finds himself inspired by her presence churning out paintings at an astonishing rate. But, their temporary paradise is interrupted when jealously rears its ugly head in the form of Jotépha (Pua-Taï Hikutini). The handsome next door neighbour (so to speak) has eyes for Tehura and she for him and the three soon find themselves in less of a love triangle than a love bicycle with an awkward third wheel.
This is a middling take on a strangely fascinating artist who is peppered with the kind of flaws that make for an excellent bio-pic fare. It is disappointing then, that Edouard Deluc has opted for a smoothed over imaging, that substitutes the naked truth of Gauguin’s life for a sentimental romance narrative that feels afraid to delve into the nitty gritty of its subject. An underappreciated artist Gauguin may have been, but a syphilitic, colonialist who took a child bride he was and for all the age appropriate adjustment made (Tehura is portrayed as a young woman), it changes not the underlying reality that Tehura was thirteen. Ultimately, in this respect the film feels dishonest, romanticizing the life of a man who was a great artist, but not a romantic.
Pierre Cottereau confidently crafts a handsome film, well shot and bathed in the beautiful colours of a Gauguin painting, blues, greens and soft orange-browns and coupled with a score that, although feels overly grandiose at times, is a beautiful symphony of strings that swell and fall, help to serve as markers that this film is not all lost. Vincent Cassel is on usual great form, sinking his teeth into this version of Gauguin, putting forward a sturdy performance that is unshakable in the face of what he has been dealt.
Like many of Gauguin’s paintings, this isn’t a masterpiece.