Despite a charismatic performance by Vincent Cassel, this meditative biopic of the French painter fails to match the vibrancy of the artist’s work.
Often, in biographical films, we are given glimpses of the subject’s genius, while supporting characters wait on deck to expound on the profundity of his or her accomplishments. Meanwhile, the titular character blesses us all by tossing out nuggets of philosophical wisdom while attending to their world-changing work. Not so with Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti, a biopic courtesy of French writer-director Edouard Deluc (Welcome to Argentina). In this film, No one likes Paul Gauguin or his work, and the artist rarely speaks at all. Instead, he prefers to communicate through his art. That being the case, most of the protagonist’s intentions are lost in translation; from beginning to end, Gauguin remains an enigma both to his contemporaries and to the viewer.
In accordance with its subject, most of the film’s emotional merit is left unspoken, eschewing dialogue whenever possible in favor of lengthy, contemplative visuals. Like a painting, it has the power to evoke mood without explanation, and demands that the viewer discern the meaning on their own.
As the story unfolds in fits and starts, one slowly but surely forms a self-completing picture of the elusive artist’s psyche. Depicted here as a workaholic suffering from a severe case of ennui, Gauguin (a stony, soulful Vincent Cassel) resolves to spend his last cent to move to Tahiti. He leaves behind the city of Paris, his wife, and his five children, in order to rejuvenate his artistic efforts, which he deeply believes will one day impact the world. Whether this is an altruistic sacrifice to uphold the ideal of art itself, or an irresponsible act of vainglory to uphold his own ego is left for the viewer to judge. Suffice it to say that Mette (Pernille Bergendorff), his long-suffering wife, feels even more trapped than he does, and when Gauguin parts, he leaves them with nothing but a slew of paintings that no one will buy.
Tahiti… is not the colorful tropical paradise Gauguin anticipated. It turns out, much to his chagrin, that drudgery exists there just as much as anywhere. In his absence, his family divorces themselves from him, cutting off his funding and hanging him out to dry. His health fails him. Slumped over, barely dressed, and hardly able to walk, he suffers a heart attack. For better or worse, it’s a turning point in his life. He realizes that the plan isn’t working, and he needs to come up with something else.
His Plan B is to strike out into the rainforest by himself with zero survival skills. Eventually he is saved by a generous tribe. They offer him food, a mat to sleep on, and a wife if he wants one. They’re actually quite insistent about the wife thing, to the point where it would be rude of him to refuse.
Gauguin accepts the betrothal to Tehuna (Tuheï Adams), the demure but demanding partner who becomes his muse. Finally, color starts to seep into his life – the greens of the forest, the blue glow of moonlight, the yellow of a cozy fire reflected on the walls of their straw hut. Finally, finally, he’s happy, and we share this happiness with him. But there’s still thirty minutes of movie left, and even if you nothing of Gauguin’s life story, you know the other shoe is going to drop before the credits roll.
This brief window of joy makes the dissolution that follows all the more devastating. It’s the same pattern as any story about addiction. Once again, he turns his wife into a prisoner, his money disappears along with his support group, and he ignores the advice of those who try to help him. Unable to scrounge up canvas or paint, he becomes a dockworker. He doesn’t even draw anymore. No one can understand what he’s holding onto, or why he doesn’t return home. It was in this final coda that this reviewer realized that art was never the drug he was addicted to. Hope was the drug that kept him down.
As a meditative mood piece, Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti is a bit of a bummer. Despite the artist’s proclivity for rough shapes and vivid colors, the cinematography by Pierre Cottereau failes to take an imitative course. From drab, smoggy Paris, to the dingy white of Gauguin’s hospital room, to the vast expanses of gray ocean, vibrancy is noticeably absent here. It is as though the world that Gauguin painted existed only in his mind. It was the world he chose to create because he so deeply wished, and hoped, that it could be.
Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti starts its run at the Gene Siskel Film Center July 20th.