Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti is an impressionists look at the time famed French painter Paul Gauguin spent in Tahiti. It is a visually stunning film with an expert performance by Vincent Cassel. The story doesn’t support the rest of the film, making for a rough journey.
The goal of a struggling artist is to find their center, their passion. For Paul Gauguin (Vincent Cassel), he struggled to find his own center. None of his paintings were attracting interest, and any job that he took in the commercial world, he failed at.
Edouard Deluc’s film paints a picture of a man in desperate times who feels trapped within his own surroundings. He tries to convince friends to join him on what he thinks will be an idyllic setting in Polynesia. What he discovers is that, though the setting is beautiful, he cannot afford to live, let alone survive. As he struggles to make ends meet, he integrates with the local tribes where he meets Tehura (Tuhei Adams), someone who instantly catches his eye, reigniting his passion.
The film is entirely in French with English subtitles, but the translations are rarely needed. Just like Gauguin’s future paintings, the visual landscape that Deluc captures is stunning. The trappings of an island setting, where the land, the sky and the water are so open, you might not be so inclined to feel trapped.
The trouble with all of this is that reality comes crashing down.
For Paul, it is his failing health. A good friend, Henri Vallin (Malik Zidi) watches over Paul on the island, while a broken marriage with Mette (Pernille Bergendorff) awaits him in Paris. For the audience, there is not enough substance to sustain the story. Cassel offers an amazing performance, especially with his weary eyes. For the character, his wonders never cease. For the audience, there is a blossoming relationship between Paul and Tehura, which fuels his creativity.
In the end, it is not even enough to sustain him.
The script by Deluc, Etienne Comar, Thomas Lilti and Sarah Kaminsky touches on several themes, most specifically surrounding religion. The Tahitian tribes are very centered around the ideology of church and a higher being, a point that Tehura makes to Paul when they discuss clothing. The story also centers on an apprenticeship that Paul offers to Jotepha (Pua-Tai Hikutini), which turns into a rivalry for Tehura’s affections.
Ultimately, these interactions drive Paul, but never really in service of the story. It is said though that some of Gauguin’s most famous works were created on the island. The lush scenery of the island is captured through the experienced eyes of Pierre Cotterau, whose use of light and color in the film were the keys to unlocking Gauguin’s genius in his paintings.
While I am only peripherally aware of Paul Gauguin, the script focused more on the relationship with Tehura then his own internal struggles, which are used to establish the story. His art was secondary, which would seem to indicate that this was not the focus of the screenwriters. It feels like a disservice when thought of in this context. As an audience member, I would have love to have seen more of his work, rather than his suffering.
In an expanded theatrical release starting today, Gaugin – Voyage to Tahiti is a stunning film, visually, Cassel’s performance is sublime. The story falters and the supporting cast, though important, do not serve the overall film.
Gauguin – Voyage to Tahiti has been rated R by the MPAA.