Review: Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti

If you are a lover of modern art in the least, you’re most likely familiar with Paul Gauguin’s work, particularly the bold colorful paintings he did while living in French Polynesia. Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti explores his first voyage there during the years from 1891 and 1893. Tired of the Paris scene, and looking to inject something new into his work, Gauguin decided to go half a world away to free his soul to create. And from the paintings I’ve seen in museums around the globe, it worked. French actor Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) plays Gauguin with his usual abandon, disappearing into the role of the driven artist in the exotic world of his dreams. The film won’t give you many insights into his work though. It’s a fictional view of his life with one particular girl/muse. It’s absorbing, but also seriously lacking.

Gauguin had had a bit of success already in Paris before he took off, abandoning his wife and five children. But his wife knew very well that Art was the most important thing in his life, and except for a letter from her saying she and the children won’t be coming to live with him, we never hear of them again. In Tahiti, he’s energized and paints day and night. But when he meets a native family who offer him their daughter Tehura as a wife, his work and his life change. (Of course, he never mentions his family far away.) He still paints, and Tehura becomes the model in many of his paintings, but as their relationship cools, and she begins a relationship with a local man more her age, Gauguin loses his drive to paint and becomes obsessed with keeping her, even giving up his art to work at the docks so he can afford a place in town where he thinks she’ll be far away from the other man.

Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti is beautifully shot and the performances are all great, but after 102 minutes I felt like I should have gotten more from it. The film was liberally adapted from Gauguin’s own journals from his time in Tahiti, but it conveniently skips over the fact that Tehura was only 13-years-old and invents the other man as a plot device. There must have been a better way to tell this story. If you love Vincent Cassel as I do, you may want to see this one, otherwise, wait for it to stream somewhere. Or go to a museum and delight in his paintings.

[Mainstream Chick’s take: This film is ‘arty’ in the truest sense of the word. I was rather bored, though I did appreciate the occasional beauty shots of the Tahitian land and seascape. It’s another in a series of movies about temperamental artists who find fame posthumously. I much preferred last year’s Cezanne et Moi. Art history majors may want to check out Gaugin: Voyage to Tahiti. But for the most part, mainstream audiences should skip the flick, and heed Arty Chick’s advice: go see his paintings instead. -hb]

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