In the movie Gauguin Voyage to Tahiti when he died in 1903 at the age of 54, all alone and living in French Polynesia, Paul Gauguin was an uncelebrated French artist with nary a franc to his name. But in the years following his death, thanks to well-funded exhibitions and a change in the cultural zeitgeist, Gauguin gained renown as one of the boldest and most illustrious painters of his or any other time. In 2014, the artist’s 1892 masterpiece Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) sold at auction for $210 million, placing it among the most expensive artworks in the world.
In movies, Gauguin was portrayed by Anthony Quinn (opposite Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh) in the Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life (1956). Quinn only appeared onscreen for eight minutes but was so memorable that he scored an Oscar—the shortest performance ever to win in the category of Best Supporting Actor.
No such scant screen time here. In director Edouard Deluc’s Gauguin Voyage to Tahiti, the artist finally takes center stage. Acclaimed French actor Vincent Cassel (La Haine, Elizabeth, Irreversible, Black Swan, Jason Bourne) is onscreen for virtually every minute of this lush, imaginative biopic, inspired by Gauguin’s own memoir Noa Noa (a Tahitian word meaning fragrance). Portraying a ravaged Gauguin as he is awoken by the beauty and mystery of Tahiti, Cassel delivers another of his fully embodied, magnetic performances.
As the movie opens in the Paris of 1891, Gauguin is suffocating from lack of inspiration and the crowded oppression of life in the city. He is endlessly struggling to earn money, and when he decides to venture off for a sabbatical in French Polynesia, his depression is only deepened as his artist pals—not to mention his wife and five children—opt instead to stay in the French capital.
So he ventures off all alone. At the 13 minute mark, the movie cuts from the craggy, weary face of Gauguin, sitting at a bon voyage party in a colorless restaurant, to a rain-battered tent in the Tahitian jungle, where he is painting a landscape piece at night by candlelight. As day time comes and he visits a local village, we see that Gauguin is living a solitary life but seems content having thrown himself into his artwork.
But the circumstances of his real life back in Paris still interfere. He receives one damning letter from his wife, another from his art dealer, and then collapses from a heart attack amid the verdant palm trees of his newly adopted home. In the hospital, a French doctor (Malik Zidi) helps nurse Gauguin back to semi-decent health, while the artist finds inspiration by painting the glass window in his hospital room.
Check out photos from Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti: