NEW YORK, NY.-
When he died in 1903 at the age of 54, all alone and living in French Polynesia, Paul Gauguin was an uncelebrated French artist with nary a franc to his name. But in the years following his death, thanks to well-funded exhibitions and a change in the cultural zeitgeist, Gauguin gained renown as one of the boldest and most illustrious painters of his or any other time. In 2014, the artists 1892 masterpiece Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry)? sold at auction for $210 million, placing it among the most expensive artworks in the world.
In movies, Gauguin was portrayed by Anthony Quinn (opposite Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh) in the Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life (1956). Quinn only appeared onscreen for eight minutes but was so memorable that he scored an Oscarthe shortest performance ever to win in the category of Best Supporting Actor.
No such scant screen time here. In director Edouard Delucs Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti
, the artist finally takes center stage. Acclaimed French actor Vincent Cassel (La Haine, Elizabeth, Irreversible, Black Swan, Jason Bourne) is onscreen for virtually every minute of this lush, imaginative biopic, inspired by Gauguins own memoir Noa Noa (a Tahitian word meaning fragrance). Portraying a ravaged Gauguin as he is awoken by the beauty and mystery of Tahiti, Cassel delivers another of his fully embodied, magnetic performances.
As the movie opens in the Paris of 1891, Gauguin is suffocating from lack of inspiration and the crowded oppression of life in the city. He is endlessly struggling to earn money, and when he decides to venture off for a sabbatical in French Polynesia, his depression is only deepened as his artist palsnot to mention his wife and five childrenopt instead to stay in the French capital.
So he ventures off all alone. At the 13 minute mark, the movie cuts from the craggy, weary face of Gauguin, sitting at a bon voyage party in a colorless restaurant, to a rain-battered tent in the Tahitian jungle, where he is painting a landscape piece at night by candlelight. As day time comes and he visits a local village, we see that Gauguin is living a solitary life but seems content having thrown himself into his artwork.
But the circumstances of his real life back in Paris still interfere. He receives one damning letter from his wife, another from his art dealer, and then collapses from a heart attack amid the verdant palm trees of his newly adopted home. In the hospital, a French doctor (Malik Zidi) helps nurse Gauguin back to semi-decent health, while the artist finds inspiration by painting the glass window in his hospital room.
Then he is back to living off the land, eating fruit and trying to catch fish (or shoot them with a rifle) in a pond next to a waterfall. Falling in with a local tribe of native Tahitians, Gauguin is eyed by the young, beautiful Tehura (Tuheï Adams), who is offered by the tribal leaders to Gauguin as his wife. In a short time, she has become his muse and his model in a number of paintings, as the two also bond over discussions of art as he teaches her how to draw.
Days turn into months and Tehura and Gauguin (or Kok, as he is named by the locals) pass the time in a state of suspended bliss. But conflict comes at them from two directions. First, religion, which Gauguin abhors and has no use for, but Tehura is fascinated by, if only at first because of the white dresses women wear at Christian mass. And second, a strong, handsome man named Jotepha (Pua-Tai Hikutini), who embodies a true talent for wood carving, just as Gauguin feels his inspiration waning. A love triangle forms as Tehura finds herself drawn to Jotephas youth and vitality.
And as his jealousy and lack of control begins to drive Gauguin mad, he finds himself as hopeless and unhappy as he was in Paris. After two years he departs Tahihi, leaving the island forever changed by his experiences there.
In his second feature film after 2012s Buenos Aires road trip movie Welcome to Argentina, French director Edouard Deluc suffuses Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti with an abundance of natural beauty, layered onto a complex portrait of a passionate yet often stubborn man. Deluc and his cinematographer Pierre Cottereau deploy explosions of green in the films aesthetic palette, drawing a fascinating contrast between the orange and browns which dominated Gauguins paintings of the island.
An intriguing point of reference for the filmmaker and cinematographer was the 2007 Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, both for the period visuals and the stunning nighttime photography. Several scenes in Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti were lit with simple candlelight, imbuing the aesthetic with the texture of black oil paint. And in another neat tribute to the Brad Pitt film, the haunting violin score of Gauguin was written by The Assassination of Jesse James co-composer Warren Elliswhose music itself was an inspiration to Deluc while writing and preparing the film.
But for all its ravising visuals, Gauguin is anchored by the transfixing performance of Vincent Cassel. Having acted for more than two decades, and now in his early 50s, Cassel moves and breathes with the gravitas of a man who has lived life to its fullest. As Gauguin, hes required to portray someone stooped, graying, and in ill health, but we can always see the vitality, charisma, and liveliness in his piercing eyes.
And in the final moments of the film, as Gauguin is sailing away from Tahiti, it is within Cassels face that we read the magnificent swirl of emotionsjoy and pain, success and disappointment, love and heartbreakin the life of a great artist.