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Movie Review : A Different Vision Of Gauguin

July 31, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

In art there are only two types of people: revolutionaries and plagiarists. . . . How difficult painting is! I will trample on the rules, and I will be stoned to death.

--Paul Gauguin

"Gauguin: Wolf at the Door" (Beverly Center Cineplex, the Monica 4-Plex and the Esquire in Pasadena) is a fine biographical drama about painter Paul Gauguin and the feverish 18 months he spent in Paris and Brittany, between his two stays in Tahiti.

It was a time when his dreams of recognition and commercial success were crushed; when his split with his wife and family became irrevocable; when his romance with a model ended in catastrophe; and when, in a fight with sailors, he suffered the foot wound from which he never recovered and which kept him in pain until his death.

A sad catalogue of events. And director Henning Carlsen--known primarily for his moving 1966 adaptation of Knut Hamsun's "Hunger"--gives them to us in tones of muted grief, in a delicately shadowed world of 19th-Century streets and quiet galleries. Against this subdued milieu, the vibrant, overextended passions of Gauguin rage, like the turbulent swatches of color in his paintings.

Gauguin's paintings hang in his somber room, picked out like blasts of leafy sunlight in a cavern. If the temperature outside seems almost Nordic, inside, flowers of sensuality steam from his brush: golden-skinned young island maids; flesh, fruit and foliage; flashes of color swimming in blinding light; yellows and reds that pour down the canvas in ravaging floods. There's an unnerving juxtaposition of two worlds: one outside, which is destroying him piecemeal, and one inside, which he fights to release.

Donald Sutherland, who plays Gauguin, takes a different approach from two excellent predecessors: Anthony Quinn's magnetic brute in "Lust for Life" and Laurence Olivier's magisterial amoralist in the TV version of "The Moon and Sixpence." Sutherland plays less for the usual muscular vitality than for sentiment. With his weak chin and tender, watery eyes--and the touch of a lisp in his voice--he seems exhausted, on the brink of collapse. The aura of disdain seems a more willed, calculated effort. He suggests less of Gauguin's own self-image--the sacred beast, buccaneer or savage. In the film, it is Gauguin's admirer, Edgar Degas, who describes him as a "wolf"--but this is a nearly starved and bleeding wolf, being slaughtered by the sheep around him.

When the movie's Gauguin holds himself stubbornly erect--while kibitzers sneer at his gallery show or an impresario refuses his work, wanting instead his last mementos of Van Gogh--you can feel his heart cracking underneath. Carlsen and writer Christopher Hampton give us a man near the end of his tether. The real-life Gauguin had eight more years of creative life after he left Paris for the last time for Tahiti, but it seems that this Gauguin is enduring an almost mortal blow to his pride.

The story is told from a romantic perspective, that of 14-year-old Judith (Sofie Graboel), daughter of his Swedish landlords, who idolizes him. Like Joan Fontaine in "Letter From an Unknown Woman," Judith is the pure, sensitive young girl in love with a libertine artist--who represents for her the dream of art, passion, escape. But she's no shy voyeur. She willingly poses nude for Gauguin, even tries to seduce him. In an ironic touch, he refuses her: His sins can be committed only with the appropriate people--like the prostitute who has borne his child or the Javanese model Annah (Valerie Morea), who winds up betraying him. The movie is as much about the effect of Gauguin's revolt on this dreamy young bourgeoise as it is about Gauguin himself, and, because of this, pathos supplants ungovernable passion.

As before, we see the movies' painter-as-misunderstood-genius, battering against a world that refuses to appreciate him: a world of philistines, fatuous critics and fop-dilettantes who fail to recognize greatness in their midst. This is the world of Charles Laughton in Korda's "Rembrandt," Jose Ferrer as Toulouse-Lautrec, Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh. And, since director Carlsen comes from Denmark, where Gauguin is usually regarded as a cad--for deserting his Danish wife and children--he may also, unconsciously, be pleading his case a bit too much, soft-pedaling the egotistic, dangerous side.

In the film though, the chaste, tense images--by cinematographer Mikael Salomon--work against sentimentality. "Gauguin" (rated R for nudity and language) is lovingly composed, and it has fine performances by Sutherland, by Max Von Sydow as a prissy, timid August Strindberg, and by Merete Voldstedlund as Mette Gauguin. And it has an unusually beautiful and touching portrait from Sofie Graboel as Judith; with her ivory profile and soft gaze, she seems to belong more in Raphael's or Botticelli's world than Gauguin's.

Perhaps this film will be too slow for some audiences. It's definitely not as daring or provocative as Derek Jarman's "Caravaggio." But, even if this is a lesser work--one which feeds off our admiration for a great artist and some sentimental myths--it still has passion and pain behind it. It's probably shallow to dismiss any depiction of the sufferings of great artists; all too often, they're true.

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