Artistic creation is, naturally, a rich source for drama. Ballet companies, theatre troupes, orchestras and rock bands make good character ensembles. Filmmaking, despite the inherent self-reference, makes for great material: there are a lot of people engaged in a brutally challenging task, often bearing outrageous levels of ego, neuroses, ambition and wit. The solo arts are inherently more difficult; nothing can be duller than a film about a writer staring at a typewriter, or, even worse, a computer screen. At least painters have a canvas, and can literally create an image in front of our eyes, but a hundred minutes of staring at that, would be… well, like watching it dry.
Obviously, the artist needs to be dramatically engaged. Usually in this type of film, he or she is involved in an epic battle with the bottle, and often juggling multiple lovers. Pollack (2000) was good; so was Basquiat (1996). But Gaugin, or Gaugin Voyage De Tahiti as it is known in France, is not good. It is dramatically mort.
Gaugin gets sick of Paris; Gaugin goes to Tahiti; Gaugin paints. Except for a brief illness, he encounters such little drama in the tropics that the filmmakers have had to construct a love triangle for us to try and get excited by. It’s not exciting, not by anyone’s standards. There’s also a subplot – if it even qualifies for the word – involving a Tahitian student of Gaugin cheapening his talent by replicating statues to sell to white French colonialists, but it sounds more captivating than it is, which obviously isn’t saying much.
Gaugin is painted – boom tish – as unsympathetic, leaving, as he does, his large family to go cavorting in paradise (which makes the love triangle even more insufferable). Why Vincent Cassel agreed to play him, other than for a trip to Tahiti, is imponderable. It can’t have been the script, which must have had a lot of empty white space. This is a truly boring movie, in which barely anything happens. Gaugin’s actual paintings have more drama, and more life.