Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2018 8:55 pm 
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Tristes tropiques

If you see some of his real masterpieces, as you could two years ago at the "Icons of Modern Art - The Shchukin collection" show at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, you appreciate how Paul Gauguin's paintings weave a magic spell with color - purple, violet, pink, gold , lime green, and the sensuous brown of flesh. He was an extraordinary artist.

But as Holland Carter wrote in the Times when introducing a big 2011 show of his work in Washington, Gauguin was "a dreadful man who made some beautiful art." He ditched his family, lied about his life, slept with fourteen-year-olds, was a poseur.

The details of Gauguin's life, however, are fascinating, and go far beyond those few lines of condemnation. A childhood in Peru, a luxurious life, Catholic boarding school, stints in the merchant marine and the navy, making $150,000 in his early twenties on the French stock market; marriage, five kids, life in Denmark. And, after a big market crash, the decision at 34 to devote himself to what for some years had been only a highly accomplished hobby, art - finishing by becoming one of the great post-Impressionists.

If one's even passingly aware of the complexity of this CV, and the man's intense involvement with the art and artists of his time, one can't help being discontented with a new French movie, Edouard Deluc's Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti. Deluc, with the dubious help of four screenwriters, narrows down his focus to an eighteen-month period of the artist's action-packed life - then reduces what's left to a few half-baked romantic clichés. This movie has more in common with Somerset Maugham's A Moon and Sixpence, a melodramatic riff off Gauguin, than the artist's actual biography. In addition this film is inaccurate about him in multiple ways.

As you'd expect from four writers, the story of this film has no real center, simply meandering from one thing to another, then coming to an end. Gauguin goes to Tahiti, has health problems, gets a girl, paints, gets jealous, locks the girl up, runs out of money, goes home. Suffers. Says he's a great artist.

The lush, shallow-focus, outward look of it is fine. But compared to one of the rare successful nineteenth-century art genius biopics, Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh, it's just a string of "Oh no!"s and "not again!"s. And redemption isn't on its way from Cassel. He made a name for the monumental two-feature biopic of a gangster, Mesrine (Part 1, Part 2) and was offered to impersonate various other famous French guys, but held off for Gauguin. He's too tall, too skinny, to grizzled and grey, and too old, and no matter how earnest he is, he doesn't inhabit Gauguin, only the corny "problems" he's given - poverty, illness, an unfaithful native "vahine" wife Tehura (the beautiful and appropriate Tuheï Adams). This is an ego trip for Cassel, a macho guy as a macho guy as a sad striver. Cassel impresses, but he does not save the picture.

At least this was shot in Tahiti, with Tahitians. And so the artist's pal, imitator, and sexual rival, the handsome Jotépha (Pua-Taï Hikutini), looks absolutely right. Yet he gets almost nothing to say. Tuheï Adams doesn't get much. Is it because she doesn't speak much French? One wonders how come Gauguin speaks Tahitian so well - a detail the film neglects to explain.

Another matter that the four screenwriters fail to come to terms with is Gauguin's strong connection to Christianity or his role as a visionary poseur and spiritual seeker. We only see him object when Tehura (not her real name but the name he gave her later in his self-mythologizing book Noa Noa) wants to go to church - no doubt because he was disappointed to learn how colonized and Christianized the islands were, though this isn't expressed.

The movie doesn't do justice to the intellectual side of Gauguin's Tahiti experience. It focuses more on his bad health. To this end, it makes the doctor who treats him after he has a heart attack into a major character, and a friend - Henri Vallin, played by Malik Zidi. Zidi is made blandly generic here, like the rest, a bespectacled caregiver. Valin keeps reappearing to urge Gauguin to go home for treatment. Gauguin correspondingly coughs in every scene, to remind us that he's a great, doomed artist.

There's an irony in Gauguin's rage at Jotépha for copying his wood tiki carvings, then copying his copies to sell them to "white people." Gauguin's tikis are themselves fake-folkloric objects, and whom does he want to sell them to but the white people? "Be yourself! Be original!" he shouts at Jotépha angrily. Hmm. Later we see Jotépha looking spruce and well dressed. Meanwhile Gauguin runs out of money and has to work as a stevedore down at the docks.

We now know Gauguin's paintings matter not so much for the originality of their images as for what Holland Carter called their "aesthetic innovation, the way they flatten space and turn color into solid form independent of figures, detached from landscapes, free of naturalistic function." Their "modernistic vision," as he wrote, is "authentic beyond question." There's more than that, of course: there's the falsified, but enchanting, exotic world Gauguin draws us into by these means. But Deluc's film slights the paintings and the making of them, allowing only a few key glimpses - notably a memorable one of the source of "Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch)," when the artist comes upon Tehura lying frightened naked on the bed. Deluc never truly enters into the work or defines its uniqueness for us. Instead of either seeing through Gauguin's eyes or perceiving his otherness, we get closeups of Cassel's gnarly but not very expressive face.

France had a policy back then that its citizens who ran out of money abroad could get free passage home, and Gauguin availed himself of that. What we don't get here is any sense of how active and connected with the local society and comfortable Gauguin ultimately was when he returned to Polynesia a few years later, never to come home. The film's concluding end note, "He never saw Tehura again," fails to mention that in his subsequent years in Polynesia he had a string of teenage vahines and children by them. This caps the feeling of Voyage to Tahiti as a faux-biopic. But at least it's not as forgettable as last year's Cézanne et moi - maybe.

Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti/Gauguin - Voyage de Tahiti, 102 mins., bypassed festival debuts, opening in France and Switzerland 20 Sept. 2017. It did not do particularly well with French critics (AlloCiné press rating 3.0; and the viewer score, 2.6, is worse). Limited US release begins 11 Jul. 2018, opening at Quad Cinema, New York.

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