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Biopic ‘Gauguin’ is a portrait of a troubled artist

August 9, 2018

“Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti” is a well-acted but very muddled biography of the brilliant, troubled artist Paul Gauguin in his advanced years.

The French production casts the always magnetic Vincent Cassel (“Ocean’s Twelve,” “Black Swan”) as Gauguin. Penniless and weary of Belle Epoque Paris, he’s given a lewd farewell party in 1893. More successful peers toast his courage to explore the South Pacific for vibrant faces and landscapes worth painting.

He’s also seeking a free lifestyle. It will be very free, because his wife, Mette (Pernille Bergendorff), refuses to move to Tahiti with their five children.

In French Polynesia, Gauguin lives far inland from the European pioneers crowding the port and Christianizing the natives. Director/co-writer Edouard Deluc moves the story forward at a languid pace. Worse, except for an occasional shot, the location cinematography can’t match the dazzling, exotic color of the artist’s work.

In his new home, Gauguin resolutely learns to live off the land, deal with late-life illness and coexist with the kindly, welcoming Tahitians. They are presented as sophisticated individuals, not the rural primitives often seen in movies set on a period frontier.

His hosts, generous to a fault, invite him to consider taking a native wife, Tehura (Tuheï Adams). She looks at the pale, unkempt elder and says with a smile, “I’d like that.” Cassel’s dumbfounded reaction is priceless.

As she becomes his model and muse, she’s called a Venus and an Eve, and Adams certainly is that. She makes a fine odd couple mate with Cassel, graceful against his stoop-shouldered foot dragging and calm as he telegraphs complex, contradictory emotions with every glance.

His demeanor grows more pitiable as Tehura, whom Gauguin can’t feed reliably, develops an interest in Jotépha (Pua-Taï Hikutini). The handsome villager learned how to create art from Gauguin, but, unlike his teacher, he sells it to tourists quite profitably. Jealous, Gauguin moves to town, where there are hinged doors and Tehura can be locked in place when he steps outside.

It’s a made-up, rather soap opera plot, although it makes a valid point about the moral hypocrisy of the region’s civilized new arrivals.

Yet, there’s a touch of that pretense in the film, too. It never observes that Gauguin wed Tehura when she was just 13. (Adams was 17 during the filming.) Nor does Deluc note that Gauguin took two subsequent wives of the same age.

The narrative withholds an important part of the artist’s history while putting his young wife in a fictional affair. Like Cassel’s fine performance, the film turns Gauguin’s failings into sympathetic faults.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

@colincovert

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