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GAUGUIN: VOYAGE TO TAHITI (2017) review

July 23, 2018

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written by: Edouard Deluc, Etienne Comar, Thomas Liti & Sarah Kaminsky
produced by: Bruno Levy
directed by: Edouard Deluc
rating: not rated
runtime: 102 min.
U.S. release date: July 11, 2018 (limited) & July 20-26, 2018 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)

 

The artist in me understands the desire to escape into the creative process and spend entire days producing art, or at least attempted to. The added benefit of making a living off of that would be great, but it’s often unrealistic and such is the artist’s plight, especially when you have the responsibilities of providing and being present for your family. “Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti” is a film that revolves around a specific time in the life of post-Impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin, when he decided to leave his family behind in pursuit of his artistic passion. Co-writer/director Edouard Deluc chose an specific and intriguing time in the life of French artist and the lush locations are at times quite captivating, but it’s difficult to be investing when there are not redeeming qualities to Gauguin other than his artwork.

Not that it’s hard to follow a character who lacks a moral compass, but usually the audience is given redeemable aspects to hold on to while the protagonist goes from one reckless and selfish decision after another. Granted “Voyage to Tahiti” only focuses on two years in the artist’s life, but these visits to Polynesia (primarily the titular land, but he would also frequent and eventually settle in the nearby Marquesas Islands) were pivotal in that they eventually produced a lively renaissance – or interest, at least – in the artist’s work from this period in his life. If only the semblance of interest could be gleaned from Deluc’s look at Gauguin (Vincent Cassel) during this time.

This being a fictionalized account of Gauguin’s first two years in Tahiti, which began in April of 1891, it’s clear we’re not going to get the details of Gauguin’s life and we unfortunately won’t be privy to his thought process, despite being based on his own journal Noa Noa. Since the screenplay by Deluc and three other writers are solely set on painting a stereotypical portrait of a suffering artist – the kind that’s broke, chronically ill and in self-exile. Beyond that and the fact that he abandoned his wife Mette (Pernille Bergendorff) and five children to pursue his own interests (which is written off as “passion”), there is very little insight here as to who Gauguin was, which offers a very one-dimensional picture of the artist.

 

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It’s communicated here that he apparently left France after feeling suffocated by what he perceived as the “artificial and conventional” societal norms. There’s no indication (or at least it’s not clear) where he secured funds for his journey, there’s just a cut to Gauguin arriving on this tropical destination after failing to persuade his fellow Parisian artist friends to join him. There is an indication that Gauguin needs this break from his everyday expectations, in order to shake off an artistic rut and rejuvenate his creativity (stating he craves “authenticity”), but that’s never fully explored in “Voyage to Tahiti”.

Never mind how he gets to Tahiti, the film does get interesting once he’s there as one would hope, but that doesn’t mean Gauguin himself gets any more interesting. The culture and the environment he’s introduced to is much more intriguing than the artist. After Gauguin spent some initial time living in the capital of the French colony, Papeete, he then opted to move deeper into the jungle and set up a bamboo hut studio in Mataiea, Papeari, and it’s during this time that a local family offers their beautiful young daughter, Tehura (Tuheï Adams) for a bride with the caveat that if the girl is unhappy in a year’s time, she can go back home. Her mother specifically asks Gauguin if he’s a good man, to which he hesitantly replies that he is. He knows he’s not as do the viewers, but he’s too selfish and lonely to admit that he’s just not wired to be a stand-up significant other.

While Tehura becomes something of a muse for Gauguin, it doesn’t take long to ascertain how he comes to solely see her as a model for his artwork. He becomes absorbed by his artistic process, painting passionately and creating wooden carvings, yet predictably neglects his wife, which leads her to look for attention and affection elsewhere. Eventually, their happiness is brief and their marriage dissolves due to misunderstandings, jealousy and resentment on Gauguin’s end.

Although “Voyage to Tahiti” sets out to uncover what led to the notable Polynesian paintings from this time in Gauguin’s life, it offers very little enlightenment as to the origin of those colorful and vibrant paintings from this period in his life. In fact, I would’ve preferred to glean what I could from prints of his work during this time, rather than be subjected to a story that feels like a paint-by-numbers biopic. Still, what we learn here taints those paintings with an uncomfortable uneasiness that was absent prior to viewing this film. Little did the average onlooker know that his model was an appointed wife, who wound up ignored and unhappy.

As the two main characters, the performances from Cassel and newcomer Adams are just fine, considering there is no need for either of them to show a spark of chemistry. Cassel is a pro at portraying despicable characters, but it’s a shame his Gauguin is written into such a one-note characterization. When Tehura expresses to Gauguin that she is homesick, pleading him to take her home to see her mother and her grandmother, he flatly tells her “no”, reassuring her that everything will be alright and that he will take care of her. That sounds like the right thing to say, but he can’t even take care of himself, let alone think about the well being of anyone else.

Viewers will be hard-pressed to find any redeeming qualities in Gauguin throughout the film, making “Gaugauin: Voyage to Tahiti” a tough watch. He comes across as a man who holds no love for anyone, saving any passion he has for his art. Considering the storyline here, it’s a film I wanted to get lost in, but instead I found the approach Deluc and company took to be rather off-putting and at times, quite boring. If anything, what the film did was pique my curiosity about Gauguin’s time spent in Tahiti and what the real story was. Perhaps I could come to a better understanding of who he was, since I didn’t find that here. But then again, maybe he was just a self-obsessed artist, which proves that one can be a gifted talent, yet at such a profound cost.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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