Cassel (La Haine, Sheitan) dominates virtually every shot, except the sequences where 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 postcolonialist 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 the artist, as when Cassel glares suspiciously at Malik Zidi’s well-meaning doctor 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.