Édouard Deluc, fascinated by the beauty of images and sensitive to music, became a director due to his passion for great stories. When he comes across subjects that carry him away and that help him make sense of his role in the world as a man and as an artist, he makes films about them. This is one of the motives behind Gauguin: Voyage de Tahiti, a feature film that brings this wretched painter to life during his first visit to Tahiti from June 9, 1891 to June 4, 1892.
Where did you get the idea to make this film and how is Gauguin a film character for you?
Édouard Deluc: As a matter of fact, these two questions are entirely connected. The first inspiration came from Gauguin’s travel journal, Noa Noa. This personal diary is also a fantastic adventure story coming from a man on a quest to paint, to find himself and who is certain that he has things to say but that they couldn’t be said within the constraints of society. From outside the margins of the clichés that are associated with Paul Gauguin, we find the embodiment of this character. He is neither a genius nor a monster, perhaps both, surely both, but also so much more interesting and complex once you start digging. Gauguin had an extremely refined mind that grasped raw feelings and returned to simplicity. Civilization created confusion, so he tried to find a thread to go back to where we come from. Noa Noa is a crazy adventure story, a quest that is both tragic and noble, and through this, it speaks to all of us.
What justified the choice to specifically highlight the painter’s first trip to Tahiti?
This trip galvanized a very powerful moment in his life. He had reached a point of rupture with civilization and knew it was now or never. Polynesia had been under the French flag for ten years and Loti’s book had been published ten years earlier in 1880* … Gauguin was searching for truth and believed he would find it in Tahiti. He had the fantasy that he would find humanity in its infancy. Inevitably, he was disappointed when he arrived because Papeete had already metamorphosed into a French sub-prefecture, which pushed him to go even farther. But this period had the greatness of a first movement with strong personal stakes which were very intense for him. This period was also an obvious gateway due to its importance in French Polynesian history.
Was coming to Tahiti a bonus or a necessity?
Economically it was a concern, because it is very expensive. But the truth is, it never occurred to us to not come here. The only alternative was to not do the film…we stuck it out together and found ways to make it cheaper. For the people as well as the setting, it had to be shot here. The other possibilities made no sense. Gauguin had come here to meet Tahitians and untamed nature … It was an absolute necessity. It was not possible to do this anywhere else.
Between Tahiti of the late nineteenth century and today, have you found analogies and established any kind of continuity?
If anything is permanent, it is people. This is obvious if you take the time to look at them. You can have nothing to talk about yet share everything anyway. You don’t have to tell yourself gibberish or try to sell yourself anything. There is a relationship to time that has not shifted. You find this on Gauguin’s canvases. There is an infinite wisdom, an infinite serenity, an immutability, a continuity. Tahitians know how to be present without expecting anything more than being where they are and being present. They offer an abundance of plenitude and peace, something that does not happen with anyone else. It blew me away.
What do you think is the attraction and notoriety that Tahiti has enjoyed in the West since its discovery?
When you see the nobility of the people, the way of life and the incredible landscapes, you can easily imagine why the first sailors thought they had discovered paradise, especially since everything here mirrors the “civilized” world. After all this, I doubt it will be possible to capture all of its depth and richness after spending ten days by the lagoon in Bora Bora with idealized images that are certainly magnificent but a lot less intense.
Today, it seems that although Gauguin may have been a loser in his time, but that he eventually became a good ambassador for Tahiti, but which type of ambassador?
First, he had a very strong and noble aspiration to encounter another culture. Noa Noa is the most beautiful tourist brochure ever written about Tahiti. Gauguin created beautiful and just images that traveled around the world, but his writings are lesser known and are gorgeous in their simplicity and clarity. He really knows how to write about Tahitians, light, landscapes. He brings out the beauty, but he is also a realist with documentary vision, He knew this was a world that was disappearing at the same time he was writing and painting it. Yet at the same time, he held fast to his fantasy. This is so powerful. Despite his faults, his repatriation as an artist in distress to close this period is a crazy declaration of love for Tahiti with the feeling of having found his path. This is the reason he will come back. He obviously remains an ideal ambassador for Tahiti.
Gauguin is still a polemic figure here because of certain aspects of his life, including his lifestyle … Which part of this dimension of his character inspires you?
These are questions that still make sense and should be asked. I studied the character closely and can actually create an in-depth portrait. But above all, we can decide to draw the portrait of a free man in search of his truth. I find it to be a virtue, that there is nobility and dignity in all of this. The end of his life, when he was alone, poor and bitter, is clearly less noble. Things were not as pretty, this is for sure. Nevertheless, it seems very difficult for us to impose our 21st century morals onto reading another era, with other manners, other values. And then it does not excuse anything, of course, but Tehura made her choices … We understand in his writings. There was such depth that he could not just be a monster. He was just a complex man who knew he had a message to give and who sacrificed everything for it.
The myth of Tahiti was built around many clichés, starting with long white sandy beaches crowned with coconut trees and bathed in turquoise waters. How did you approach these imposed images?
We needed several sets within the same perimeters. Considering this constraint, I looked for places where nature was the strongest, most powerful, far from the clichés of the lagoon, turquoise water and coconut palms. A black sand beach is stunning … In reality, I did not try to go against the tourist clichés but rather to go towards the truths of the world, the ones charged with stories and ghosts. I consulted many archival images and old photographs to restore this power of the environment and the way it plays on humans. We found this at Tautira, Mataiea and on the Peninsula. In fact, it was a journey across troubled waters rather than transparent ones….
What feelings remain from this shoot? And from the reception of the people?
I was mesmerized. It is an encounter that I will never come across again in any other experiences. I was fortunate to be able to spend three and a half months in French Polynesia during three successive voyages. I feel marked for life with the impression of having touched the depths of the Polynesian soul. It changed me. And Vincent. The encounter with Tahitians has transformed him. In particular, I will remember the welcome of the choir of Tautira for the rest of my life. It was indescribable.
Why did you choose Vincent Cassel to play Gauguin?
Vincent’s face quickly came to me. Apart from the physical aspect, there are also many connections between Vincent and Gauguin: they are both free spirits with animality, power and refinement, yet at the same time they have very raw feelings. As soon as I finished reading Noa Noa, there was no question. And for him, too, it was obvious.
On a riskier note, why did you choose to entrust the role of Tehura, the painter’s muse and lover, to Tuhei Adams, a young woman totally inexperienced with filmmaking?
The producer had planned to launch a US casting call if necessary to reduce the risk, but we were determined to go meet what Gauguin had met himself. I was looking for a painting … It must be said that Gauguin describes what emanated from Tehura so well. This melancholy, this peace. Once again, we were guided by his writings. On the second day of auditions when Tuhei showed up, we discovered her density, what she has that is deep, tragic and luminous. We knew she was the one. Not all actors are actors; something truer is drawn out. The ability to act is important, but it is the nature of the person that transcends everything.
Polynesia has recently enjoyed extraordinary visibility thanks to the latest great Disney film, Moana. This interest is found in your film and other recent productions. Why do you think this is?
There is undoubtedly a global movement towards more simplicity and a call to nature at a time when our cultures are more and more sophisticated and our nature has become urbanized. It is important to ask ourselves questions about our civilization choices. And, as such, we have many things to learn about how to be in the world of Polynesians in particular. If my film could modestly contribute to that, this would be a wonderful thing.
*Le Mariage de Loti (Rarahu)
Interview compiled by Virginie Gillet