Wolf at the Door

August 29, 2012

Wolf at the Door chronicles two decisive years (1893-4) in the life of Paul Gauguin from his arrival back in Paris after painting in Tahiti, until his return to the South Pacific. It was, according to the film, Gauguin’s last fling at trying to live in civilization, and it was a complete failure.

Gauguin is played by Donald Sutherland, who plays it intelligently, if never thrillingly. I suppose this performance is somewhere between a couple of previous cinematic approximations of the Gauguin character—the different approaches of Anthony Quinn in Lust for Life and George Sanders in the fictional The Moon and Sixpence.

Sutherland does not attempt an accent or anything like that; the movie is a potpourri of nationalities before and behind the camera, as is the case with most international co-productions.

When Gauguin arrives in Paris, he has nothing but the superb canvases upon which he pours his brilliant genius. Naturally, it follows that his one-man show is a disaster (everyone hates his work), and he has no idea how to support himself. (The film includes a flashback to the moment some years before when he walked away from his family and a lucrative job as a stockbroker to pursue painting.)

At the lowest moment, an inheritance arrives, which will support his time in Paris. Gauguin tries to organize a colony of artists who will return with him to Tahiti, though this dream falls apart. He also dallies with many women, including a Javanese girl who models for him and shares his room.

It is an interesting period in his life (it included an encounter with a cranky August Strindberg, played by Max von Sydow), and the movie is a trim enough telling of it. It’s seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old neighbor girl who idolizes and romanticizes Gauguin.

The movie is essentially a Danish production, directed and produced by Henning Carlsen, a veteran Danish filmmaker.

Carlsen’s Scandinavian scrupulousness keeps the film tidy and decent. But that approach is hardly suitable to deal to Gauguin’s raging primitivism, and a fuller account of the artist’s life awaits a gutsier, more romantic film—and, probably, a more volcanic actor.

First published in the Herald, September 1987

Henning Carlsen is still alive; he did adaptations of Knut Hamsen’s Hunger and Pan, 30 years apart. I’d watch this movie again, because the story of Gauguin is so hard to resist, but I do remember being disappointed by Sutherland’s take on the role.