May 4th, 2019, 11:37 AM

Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti (Review)

By Seamus Malekafzali
Gauguin—Voyage to Tahiti is only a shell, with not much substantial beneath.

On Monday, April 29, 2019, the Art History & Fine Arts Department at AUP hosted a film screening of the film "Gauguin - Voyage to Tahiti", a French film from 2017 about (as stated in the title) the voyage of 19th century French artist, Paul Gauguin to French Polynesia. The plot of the movie surrounds the people the artist met and the art he painted therein. Mary McColley, a student who attended the showing, wanted to see the film because of her love of art as a "beautiful medium" and artists as "interesting but slightly messed-up people". And this film effectively portrays how artists can indeed be "messed up", and very problematic especially when measured to today's standards. 

Miranda Vickery, the student who organized the event, said she wanted to show the film because it is one of her favorite films. She wanted other students to be able to learn about Gauguin's personal life. While most of the students there were at least passingly familiar with Gauguin's life, Vickery's characterization of Gauguin as someone who "does very questionable acts," is an understatement. Gauguin, while lauded in his day, has become somewhat of a controversial figure in recent times due, in many parts, to a reproaching of his living in Tahiti, where he married extremely young women. Yes, that's women plural, one as young as 13.

So how does this film tell the story of Gauguin's final years in Polynesia? Unfortunately, not very well.

Still from the film, showing the grand landscape of the Tahitian islands.

It should be noted before anything, that this film is beyond gorgeous, aesthetically speaking. The cinematography is done by Pierre Cotterau, who has done work on other captivating films such as his most recent film "Le Chant du Loup" with Omar Sy, another film which does not fail to spark wonder and awe in the viewer. The scenes where Gauguin is back in France are appropriately grimy, claustrophobic (and almost uncomfortable to look at) depictions of the European country, driving home why the artist feels the need to leave the country by showing almost no inch of France in any sort of positive light. Even if the screenwriters did not feel the need to make Gauguin say anything about how he felt about the French Republic and its cities, we would have gotten the message just as easily. Vincent Cassel, as well, is as always, fantastic. I'm convinced at this point that Cassel isn't capable of a bad performance regardless of the director at the helm. Some of his noteworthy performances including Black Swan, the Emperor of Paris, Ocean's Twelve, you name it.

However, this is where the good aspects of the film unfortunately end. In an attempt to sanitize the actual life of the artist, his actual bride is replaced by someone much closer to his age. Instead of, as an audience, forced to contend with and analyze the actual life of an artist and the historical context he lived in, and ask how such a man of his stature could stoop so low, we aren't asked to deal with it at all, but rather to just forget it. This path may have worked in the pre-2000s when Gauguin's personal life wasn't as well-known, but it doesn't fly nearly as well in the current age.

Moral aversions aside, the movie on its own is just not very good. The screenwriters (in trying to make the intensely internal struggles of an artist more relatable to the audience) invent an almost love triangle between Gauguin, his wife, and his apprentice, something that never happened in real life, and one that in the film, isn't a very interesting as a piece of fiction. The primary issue that keeps swirling around my head is why the filmmakers attempted to make a film about an artist, a profession that requires so much internal thinking and emotion, without so much as an attempt to actually examine it through the oftentimes surreal and odd lens that an artist actually has for the world. When looking at this film, after having watched a picture that much better encapsulates an artist's work such as "At Eternity's Gate" about Van Gogh, this film is even more apparent in how it falls short in telling a story not only right but well.