Film review: ‘GAUGIN’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built for Speed’

Gaugin is one of the more descriptive titles in recent cinema as it sums up much of this film. This is a dramatisation of the life of famed French post-impressionist artist Paul Gaugin or at least the part he spent in the pacific island of Tahiti painting iconic images of the locals.

Set in 1891, the film sees poverty-stricken artist Gaugin (Vincent Cassell) make the remarkable decision to pack-up and move from what he sees as the cesspit of Paris to Tahiti where he thinks he will reconnect with nature and invigorate both his health and artistic inspiration.

The film provides a striking contrast between cluttered oppressive 19th century Paris and the open space of tropical Tahiti. Gaugin’s island sea change isn’t idealised, however, as Tahiti isn’t the vivid tropical paradise he may have imagined and is painted in surprisingly drab colours reminiscent of the way New Zealand was depicted in The Piano. Also, Gaugin lives in abject poverty barely eking out an existence and struggling with diabetes and heart problems. His marriage to young Tahitian woman Tehura (Tuheï Adams) briefly energises him physically and artistically.

With its minimalist plot and large chunks of Gaugin’s life barely mentioned this is largely a mood and character piece. As such it primarily explores the unusual circumstance of a maverick European urbanite artist diving into an alien environment in tropical Tahiti.

The film indulges the notion of the eccentric artist with Gaugin here a sickly, sweaty, bedraggled figure constantly on the edge of mental and physical breakdown although at one point he remarkably becomes a labourer. While Cassell inhabits the character and convinces as someone possessed with an unquenchable desire to capture his world in paint, he lays the maniacal artist routine on a bit thick. Also, Cassell doesn’t, give Gaugin the indelible quality that others portraying eccentric artists have done such as Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock or Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh.

Largely due to a lacklustre script that drifts along with few highlights the film lacks dramatic force. Writer/ director Edouard Deluc attempts to build a love triangle between Gaugin, his wife Tehura and local man Jotépha (Pua-Taï Hikutini) but this plot device lacks emotional bite even as Gaugin descends into destructive paranoia. Thankfully, though, Tehura isn’t just a one-dimensional cipher she’s a nuanced person whose affection and at times fear of Gaugin is genuine.

The film touches on issues such as the imposition of western culture on indigenous people (particularly when Gaugin uses Tehura as the muse and model for his iconic paintings) but it doesn’t explore these concerns in enough detail.

This is a limited but occasionally impressive biopic of an important and enigmatic artistic genius.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Biopic/ period piece.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Edouard Deluc.

Release date: 31st May 2018.

Running time: 101 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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