“Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti” is an immersive, strikingly shot, wisely telescoped look at the years — 1891 to 1893 — in which famed post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin escaped the artistic and financial struggles of his Paris life for the jungles of French Polynesia, where he would create some of his most pivotal artwork.
Directed by Edouard Deluc, from a script he wrote with Etienne Comar, Thomas Lilti and Sarah Kaminsky, based on Gauguin’s travel diary “Noa Noa” (Tahitian for “fragrance”), the film takes liberties with certain truths about Gauguin and his time in the tropics, yet despite — or maybe because of — its concoctions manages to produce a highly compelling central character.
This is also due, in no small part, to a persuasive, vanity-free, often soulful portrayal by versatile French actor Vincent Cassel (“Irreversible,” “Black Swan”) who seems to channel the artist with a kind of preternatural affinity.
Deluc and company begin Gauguin’s story as he leaves behind France — and his Danish wife, Mette (Pernille Bergendorff), and their five children — for the perceived physical freedom and artistic inspiration he’ll find in Tahiti. Unfortunately, we never see how he made his way to the South Pacific, though the near-10,000 mile trip, obviously taken by boat, must have been a doozy.
Poverty and ill health (he had diabetes and heart problems) follow Gauguin even to paradise, conditions that will inform, and seemingly drive, his creative spirit.
While painting by candlelight, surviving the elements and living off the land, he falls in with a tribe of Tahitians, one of whom, the lovely, teenaged Tehura (Tuheï Adams), agrees to become his wife. In short order, “Kok” (as Gauguin is nicknamed by the locals) and his somewhat enigmatic new muse and model create their own little love nest, spare though it may be.
As Gauguin tells his doctor and friend, Henri (Malik Zidi), thanks to the youthful, stirring Tehura (reportedly an amalgam of the artist’s many Tahitian lovers), he feels renewed.
Nonetheless, once we get a glimpse of a hunky young swimmer, the also fictional Jotépha (Pua-Taï Hikutini), eyeballing the comely Tehura as she washes clothes on the river rocks, it’s clear that Gauguin will soon have some romantic competition for his “Primitive Eve.” That the earthy Jotépha will also grow to be a bit of an artistic rival is not as predictable.
Though the script proves a tad elliptical about the extent of Tehura and Jotépha’s relationship, as things progress, the jealous Gauguin never leaves their home without locking Tehura inside, so he may know more than we do.
Still, this is consistent with much of the film’s narrative style which, largely to its benefit, relies more on atmosphere and visual expression than on dialogue or exposition. (Cassel’s piercing blue eyes alone speak volumes.)
Continued money and health issues propel a downward spiral for the increasingly bedraggled Gauguin that eventually send him back to Paris, though not forever. (He returned to Tahiti in 1895, then moved north in 1901 to the Marquesas Islands, where he died two years later at age 54.)
Although the committed Gauguin is so often seen painting, sketching and sculpting, his specific artistic process and output are not as deeply examined as might be expected — or desired. Fortunately, the closing credits are accompanied by vivid shots of some of his key, Polynesia-inspired works: lush, colorful, sensual. Like so many iconic artists, Gauguin, underappreciated in life, became celebrated in death.
Pierre Cottereau’s evocative lighting and cinematography, a haunting, string-heavy score by Warren Ellis and deft production design by Emmanuelle Cuillery round out this transporting portrait.
‘Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti’
In French and Polynesian with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Starts July 11, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; July 13, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena and Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino