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Gauguin in the movie: the Savage and the Eternal Sufferer

For many years, films about artists are haunted by some kind of evil fate: these films are either not feature motion or extremely far from biographical. When it comes to outstanding personalities, filmmakers tend to dramatize and romanticize. And considering the famous artists, such an attitude, perhaps, was most strongly reflected in films about Paul Gauguin. The filmmakers were even not too inventive in the names of the films about him.

Gauguin – Voyage de Tahiti, France, 2017

To shoot a film in 2017 about such a controversial personality as Paul Gauguin is a rather bold act (although for many, the ambiguous details of the artist’s biography were a discovery even in 2019 after the debate about his legacy broke out in the media). Even more daring was to base this film on Gauguin’s Noa Noa diary, in which, most likely, the fiction prevails the truth. In particular, therefore the film by the French director Edouard Dulac does not try to trace the whole life of the artist, but only focuses on those two years that he spent in Tahiti on his first visit. Moreover, according to the director himself, even the recordings of the already unreliable narrator Gauguin were set out by the scriptwriters very freely, and generously enriched with drama.
The film begins in Paris, where the artist desperately wants to leave. And given how dull and flat the French capital looks here, Gauguin’s desire to escape does not cause any surprise. Trying to show the artist even more miserable and impoverished, the script diligently ignores the fact that a very profitable auction organized by his friends and colleagues helped Gauguin to raise money for the trip and a farewell party. At the very same party, the artist sits sadly alone and seems to dream of getting out of it as soon as possible, although Gauguin did not miss the chance to have fun in his life.
Perhaps, the Voyage de Tahiti holds on the character of Vincent Cassel, covered with an impressive beard for the role. However, as the critic of The New York Times Ben Koenigsberg wrote in his review, it’s not enough just to grow a beard and pick up a brush to make a great drama. Therefore, the degree of drama in the film is increased artificially. In Dulac’s movie, the role of Gauguin’s Tahitian lover Teha’amana was played by 17-year-old Tuhei Adams, and in her case the creators had to smooth out the sharp corners, since in reality the artist’s "wife" was only 13. The role of Teha’amana in this film is more of a decorative one, thus in order to give it some sauce (and at the same time make Gauguin suffer a little more), the scriptwriters composed a not-so-convincing love triangle.

Oviri. The Wolf at the Door (Oviri. Gauguin, le loup dans le soleil, Denmark, France, 1986)

The film by Danish director Henning Carlsen, as the previous one, also tells only about two years of Paul Gauguin’s life, but about the following ones. Those that he spent in France between two trips to the islands. From his first trip to Tahiti, the artist brought to his homeland a huge number of new paintings and sculptures in full confidence that these unmatched works will be a huge success in Paris. But his compatriots were not ready for such art, Gauguin himself and his paintings were criticized and ridiculed. However, there is one bright moment in this dramatic scene: Edgar Degas appears at the exhibition, buys one of the paintings and makes a strange compliment to Gauguin, saying that he paints "like a wolf".
Later, a neighbour girl Judith asked Gauguin about Degas’s words, and he told her La Fontaine’s fable, explaining that the wolf is more likely to starve than allow to put on himself a collar for a bowl of food. In a sense, the artist’s relationship with 14-year-old Judith is the central part of the film; we see Gauguin precisely through her eyes, and her voice sounds behind the scenes. And this relationship looks very ambiguous. She poses naked to him, suffers hearing the passionate cries of other women from his apartment, and she is not embarrassed at all by the fact that Gauguin "married" a 13-year-old in Tahiti. But at the same time, when Judith kisses the artist and gives him a very strange intimate gift, and says that she is ready for anything, Gauguin refuses her, referring to his paternal feelings that came from nowhere.
The Wolf at the Door supports and continues the tradition of romanticizing the image of the suffering artist. And although due to the small budget the number of locations is limited, and there are more conversations than the action, the film is still worth watching at least for the play of Donald Sutherland, who perfectly fell into the image with his magnificent moustache and transparent eyes under heavy eyelids. The performer of the Judith’s role, the Danish actress Sofie Gråbøl became famous not so long ago, playing the female lead in the popular series "The Killing". Max von Sydow deserves special attention — he played the role of the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, a gloomy and rude woman-hater. His character probably should have contrasted the passionate and cheerful Gauguin, but this did not work very well, given the way the artist himself treated women.

Gauguin the Savage, USA, 1980

Fielder Cook’s Gauguin the Savage film bypassed movie theaters and could only be seen on television. Perhaps this is for the better, because the film resembles an amateur production of a provincial theatre. For some reason, it did with fairly famous actors. In many ways, this film looks like an adaptation of Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh. The same level of pathos, the same cardboard decorations, clean rooms and caricature makeup. Although Gauguin the Savage was filmed a quarter of a century later, when the technical capabilities of film production and the whole approach to making films changed significantly.
In this film, the story begins at an important point in the artist’s life: the exchange broker Paul Gauguin quits and solemnly announces to his wife that he decided to devote himself to painting (although in reality everything was in a slightly different manner). In general, the filmmakers did not allow themselves much liberty and tried not to depart from the real history of Gauguin, except for minor inaccuracies like the dates and places in which he created this or that work. But, unfortunately, this does not save the film at all. Gauguin, performed by the great actor David Carradine, who carefully frowns his eyebrows and utters sublime banalities, is a completely caricatured Van Gogh, who grimaces with his glued red eyebrows and waves his razor. Lynn Redgrave, who played the role of Mette Gauguin makes it a little better, but she got too little screen time here.
Gauguin the Savage passed by the attention of critics for the most part, and those who still noticed it did not leave stone unturned from the film. A very fair remark that can be applied to most films about artists was expressed back then in 1980 by The Washington Post columnist Paul Richard: "Gauguin made a name for himself in painting, and painting for some reason always awakens awe and seriousness in TV makers. Stunned by the high culture, they somehow turned an arrogant and rebellious artist into a loving daddy with a craving for vagrancy".