One thing that Vincent Cassel can never be accused of is lack of commitment to his craft. Taking on the role of post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, he grew out his beard, lost weight and popped in a few false teeth to capture the artist's run-down state. Cassel throws himself into character as you would expect but can do little to salvage writer-director Edouard Deluc’s diluted focus. As is the current trend in biopic films Gaugin centres on one particular period, set during his first visit to French Polynesia some ten years before he died.
Like his good friend van Gogh (it was believed for many years that an argument with Gaugin caused him to sever his own ear) Gauguin's art gained recognition after his death and his work went on to inspire the likes of Matisse and Picasso in the early 20th century. The time period shown by Deluc doesn't highlight his more famous work, instead looks back at an earlier time that involved a relationship with a young local girl called Tehura (Tuhei Adams). Like all the emotional relationships in the film their connection feels slight and shallow, partially as a result of Deluc's broad narrative, but mostly due to his paint-by-numbers direction.
Gauguin is intent on exploring the depths of his creativity, a calling which takes him away from his wife and kids in France to hunt for inspiration in Tahiti. Success eludes him back home where he lives as a pauper and life on the exotic sands of the South Pacific island fares little better. He stumbles across a local family who offer Tehura to him as a wife and she serves as his muse during his two years there. The subjects of colonialism and religion are loosely hung off the edges of their relationship without too much discussion, and a pivotal love triangle gradually develops to involve a younger local neighbour.
Bringing Gauguin’s life to the screen is a tough ask as over the years he has been labelled a rapist, paedophile and everything in between. Deluc chooses not to address these elements of his life and despite the obvious generational gap there is no mention of Tehura’s age. Perhaps it is incumbent upon us to make these logical leaps but the way in which their relationship is normalised does little to encourage further thought. There is a general lack of engagement with the artists' work and the Polynesian backdrop looks just as uninspiring when seen through cinematographer Pierre Cottereau's distilled lens. The story of a controversial painter who shunned Western society and evolved impressionism into symbolic art makes for an intriguing synopsis, but one which his own biopic fails to live up to.