Blu-ray Review - Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti (2017)

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Artists have an overwhelming need to express themselves, to let pain or pleasure flow out of them like water, sublimating it until it becomes something new.

Yet as hard as it is for an artist to find the time, courage, and opportunity – financial or otherwise – to create, it's even harder to be the person whose job it is to stifle their own needs and individuality in order to support the artist and inspire their work.

For once artists apply their own meaning to the life of another, soon their support system become less a subject than a stepping stone used to reach a creative destination.

From the Mona Lisa to Zelda Fitzgerald to Hitchcock's cool blondes to Clapton's "Layla," muses have always been the most enigmatic and compelling figures in art, sadly because we seldom know who they really are as people outside the perspective of their "creator."

And this is the case in Edouard Deluc's Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti with Tehura (Tuhe├» Adams), who inspires penniless French painter Paul Gauguin (Vincent Cassel) after he leaves behind his wife and children – whom we imagine played the role of muse before – and moves to Tahiti in 1891 in order to follow his inner calling of life as a true artist.

Not bothering to give us much in the way of information about Paul Gauguin or his family before he sets off on his journey, even though the picture – credited to five writers – is based on Gauguin's controversial memoirs, I went into Deluc's film knowing very little about the artist and came out knowing roughly the same amount.

Uninterested in crafting a traditional biopic, Gauguin serves up a snapshot of the painter's time spent on the island during his first, alternately perilous and prolific voyage where, following an impromptu proposition made in a single conversation, he agrees to "wed" the beautiful Tehura who would become the subject of some of his most famous paintings.

Exceedingly well played by talented newcomer Adams, Tehura's role as the optimistic, good hearted, exotic young native who inspires a white man is reminiscent of Q'orianka Kilcher's Pocahontas in Terrence Malick's 2005 masterpiece, The New World. Yet although Malick's movie seems to have influenced Deluc's in terms of its overall approach, unfortunately Kilcher's heroine is far more three dimensional than Gauguin's poorly penned Tehura.

Having collapsed following a heart attack with complications from diabetes, after Gauguin (portrayed by charismatic character actor Vincent Cassel) takes Tehura as his bride, his health woes seem to subside. Invigorated, Gauguin begins painting the young woman so often that he is forced to improvise when he can no longer afford or find any remaining canvas on the island.

Inspiring his doctor with his newfound vitality, just as Tehura's smiling, supportive presence starts to turn everything around for Gauguin (at least temporarily), the film starts to go wrong.

Little more than a highlight reel of island life, as the co-writer and director flirts with but fails to explore the way that Europeans would exploit or idealize the exoticism of islanders – especially Gauguin who turned his relationship with a teenage girl into currency – it becomes apparent that Deluc had many ideas he wasn't quite sure how to bring to life.

Glossing over or romanticizing Gauguin's flaws as quirks, such as the demands placed on Tehura where the lack of food or rest (as he keeps her posing for hours on end) are the means used to justify his artistic ends, the film misses the opportunity to examine the imbalance of power between artist and muse as well as husband and wife.

Vacuous but beautifully shot by cinematographer Pierre Cottereau, although the gifted actors do their best to make the silence count, Voyage loses its hold on the audience by failing to delve deeper into Tehura and Gauguin's past or present to reveal what this time together in Tahiti really meant to them both on a personal level.

Trying to remedy this late into the picture, since the film is imbued with a largely romantic arc, Deluc delves into the jealousy and paranoia Gauguin has regarding the handsome, more age-appropriate neighbor who bonds with Tehura over time. But even though he dares to show us a darker side to the artist as he locks his bride indoors to keep her from leaving once her formerly infectious smile starts to fade, Deluc also locks up the point-of-view that matters most when it comes to Tehura.

Unfolding like a leisurely paced Malick movie, while those looking for any substantive information about Paul Gauguin will have to spend some time actually researching him as I did, the film will still appeal thanks to the always reliable Cassel and an enigmatic, largely silent, Mona Lisa-like performance by Adams who speaks volumes with a single glance.

And as our eponymous lead’s personality begins to change, we watch as she does, still wishing in vain for the painter to open up yet knowing that he won't, not because he doesn't want to but perhaps because he fears that if he does he'll have nothing left to express – about either of them – through his art.

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