Film Review: Gauguin

Gauguin tries hard to make Paul Gauguin appear as more than a bit of a creep, but this study of his time in Tahiti ignores too much of the ugly truth to be taken seriously.

Co-writer/director Edouard Deluc’s hagiographic study of revered French artist Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) isn’t really a proper biopic (ie. someone’s whole life) and makes a number of grievous errors and glaring alterations, although star Vincent Cassel tries hard to make him something less than an awful creep. Cassel (so associated with the dark and disturbing, from La Haine and Irreversible to Eastern Promises and Black Swan) looks a bit like UK TV cult fave Catweazle here and strives to make us understand the impossible, self-pitying, self-destructive Gauguin, and we do. But we also loathe him.

There have been a few Gauguin movies before (including Mario Andreacchio’s Paradise Found, where he’s played by an all-too-clean Kiefer Sutherland), but this one particularly hides the seedy truths, as if suggesting that his debauched excess and ugliness was all part of being a genius. Yes, that dreadful old excuse.

Cassel’s middle-aged Paul is seen working on the docks in what must have been 1890 or 1891 and then nipping to a gallery to see if any of his paintings have sold. They haven’t, of course (his rough, raunchy style was just — swoon! — too far ahead of its time), and we then watch as he moves his wife Mette (Pernille Bergendorff) and five children into a smaller, cheaper, smellier Copenhagen apartment. The long-suffering Mette looks like she wants to kill him, and we certainly feel for her.

His great idea is to travel on an inspiration-seeking “mission” to Tahiti, although Mette refuses to go as the kids need to stay in school. Here we have a major departure from the facts: she didn’t sadly let him go so that he could nurture his gifts — he abandoned his family and buggered off!

Suddenly, jarringly, we’re in Tahiti, which doesn’t appear especially attractive (Pierre Cottereau’s cinematography often looks cramped) and where Gauguin soon has a heart attack. After recovering, he goes on a rambling journey into the jungle, is pretty much saved by some nice natives and, almost on a whim, is given Téhura (Tuheï Adams) for his wife. The beautiful and obviously 20-something Adams is pretty good here, but this is sheer nonsense, because in actuality Téhura was 13 and Gauguin was 48. Yes, he was a pedophile.

Paul and Téhura fall in love, and he paints her in various stages of undress and in natural poses that proved somehow revolutionary after he died, some 10 years after the events seen here. And everything slows down, as Deluc (working from Gauguin’s own book) runs out of plot and offers a final third that proves full of arty clichés. Paul gets paranoid and possessive? Check. Téhura understandably considers unfaithfulness? Check. Paul runs out of money and disapproves of her interest in Christianity? Check. Cassel gets hairier, blearier, grimier and sleazier? Check.

Offering a flat musical score by Bad Seed Warren Ellis, this finally presents a montage of Gauguin’s key paintings and sketches during its end credits and they look somewhat Van Gogh-like, often rude (Téhura topless and crouching like a dog) and, it must be said, a bit less than spectacular.

Rated M. Gauguin is in cinemas now.

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