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Vincent Cassel’s Charisma Saves “Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti”

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The decision to cast — and keep the camera pointed at — magnetic leading man Vincent Cassel is the most novel aspect of the otherwise staid French biopic Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti. It’s a Lust for Life–like period drama, following master artist Paul Gauguin as he abandons his wife and children and moves to French Polynesia, convinced that a change in environment will improve his fortune.

Cassel (La Haine, Sheitan) dominates virtually every shot, except the sequences in which his character observes (from off-screen) his paintings’ subjects: the shores of Tahiti as well as his Polynesian mistress/muse Tehura (Tuheï Adams). Director Edouard Deluc and his three co-writers focus on Gauguin’s perspective, often reducing Cassel to an emotional lightning rod for their trite post-colonialist narrative. Even worse is when Gauguin dwells on Tehura’s sexual relationship with his Tahitian apprentice Jotépha (Pua-Taï Hikutini), an affair that never happened in real life.

Thankfully, Cassel’s intimidating body language — especially his hunched shoulders, halting footsteps, and hard stare — often makes Deluc and his collaborators’ version of Gauguin seem real enough. Deluc wisely films Cassel in long takes whenever words seem to fail Gauguin, as when Cassel glares suspiciously at Malik Zidi’s well-meaning doctor Henri after he warns Gauguin that he must seek treatment back in France following a serious heart attack. Cassel’s Gauguin may ultimately be a lightweight cinematic descendant of the monstrous European pioneers that Klaus Kinski played in Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, but he’s also both menacing and pitiable enough to make Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti riveting on a moment-to-moment basis.

Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti
Directed by Edouard Deluc
Cohen Media Group
Opens July 11, the Quad

 

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