Director: Mario Andreacchio
Stars: Kiefer Sutherland, Natassja Kinski, Alun Armstrong, Chris Haywood, Nicholas Hope
Second viewing, via DVD
A broad ocker comedy. A gritty police procedural charting murky moral waters. A Shakespeare adaptation. A road movie about Indigenous youth. An art-house drama about intimacy issues. Given the variety of films covered on Down Under Flix thus far, it’s fairly clear that “Australian cinema” is a fluid, rubbery, malleable term that can encompass a range of different genres, styles and tones.
Paradise Found, a film about a French artist in Tahiti starring the guy from The Lost Boys and 24, is another Australian film, and a somewhat unlikely one. But this Paul Gauguin biopic has an Australian director, Mario Andreacchio; it features veteran Australian actors in supporting roles; it was filmed in Queensland as well as the Czech Republic; and it was funded by Australian as well as French, German and British financiers. And while we tend to associate such cinematic appropriations of other cultures and historical figures with Hollywood – by way of example, Anthony Quinn scored an Oscar for playing Gauguin in Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 Vincent van Gogh biopic Lust for Life – it’s also a typical instance of cinematic globalization in action.
The plot of Paradise Found alternates between two periods and places: 1870s Europe and 1890s Tahiti. In the former, a chance meeting with the artist Camille Pissaro (Alun Armstrong) ignites a creative spark in husband, father and stockbroker Paul Gauguin (Kiefer Sutherland) that leads to the dissolution of his marriage and career in pursuit of art. In the latter, an older, dissolute Gauguin arrives in Tahiti and struggles with artist’s block before finding inspiration in the dying culture and natural beauty of the island, and in the process challenges the local missionary and authorities.
Director Mario Andreacchio is an interesting cat. His feature debut, Fair Game, was an outback-set, rough and tumble Ozploitation thriller about a woman being victimized by three kangaroo hunters and exacting bloody revenge on her tormentors (click here for an old piece I wrote on Fair Game and other Ozploitation thrillers). He later specialized in family-themed, usually animal-centric entertainments, like Napoleon (about a golden retriever), The Real Macaw (about a parrot), Elephant Tales (no explanation needed) and most recently The Dragon Pearl (about a dragon). Amidst all this, he made a film about Gauguin. Andreacchio’s a talented and – given his choice of genres and subject matter –internationally-minded director, and on a craft level Paradise Found is topnotch. The photography and art direction throughout are clean and colourful, much like Gauguin’s work, rejecting the default muted aesthetic of many period productions. In addition, the dual timelines structure keeps the film interesting and zipping along, rather than the typical chronological A to Z biopic structure.
However, the film’s chief issue is that despite its structural ingenuity, it otherwise conforms closely to the very well-worn tropes and clichés of biopics about artists, writers, musicians, athletes, and so on. It’s understandable why these tropes and clichés exist: they help the medicine go down, providing recognizable shorthand to help filmmakers encapsulate and wrestle life stories onto film. Andreacchio’s task isn’t enviable: on top of depicting one of the great nineteenth century artists, he must also paint in broad strokes the Parisian art scene of the late 1800s, the intoxicating natural beauty of Tahiti, and the devastating effects of colonialism on the island. Consequently, one shouldn’t be surprised that Paradise Found is cut from the same cloth as other films about tortured, misunderstood geniuses who create great works and act like total jerks.
But unlike, say, Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner or Ed Harris’s Pollock, Paradise Found never really transcends those tropes, and the result is a somewhat formulaic, Hero’s Journey-shaped biopic with familiar plot beats. For example, at one point Gauguin proclaims to his long-suffering wife Mette (Natassja Kinski) “I am going to do something different, something that nobody has ever seen before! I am here to start a revolution!” It’s an instance of the tropes doing all the work: Gauguin says he’s a great artist, we as viewers know he’s a great artist, we’ve seen similar moments in similar films, and there’s a base appeal to seeing someone stick it to the system, hence the scene coasts on that mutual understanding without offering fresh insights. Still, it gets the job done.
With Paradise Found, Kiefer Sutherland became the second member of the Sutherland family to essay the role of Paul Gauguin: his father played the painter in 1986’s Oviri. The film was made during Sutherland’s tenure on 24, the TV series that provided a nice autumn for the star’s waning career, and it’s curious to see how the actor, so formidable and swaggering and outsized on the small screen, feels just a bit too small for Gauguin on the big screen. He delivers a good performance and tears into the part with relish, roaring and snarling and brooding up a storm and laughing like a pirate (really, we should’ve seen that coming), but he never quite transcends the “rebel artist” archetype he’s working with. Similarly, Natassja Kinski does good work but never transcends her generic “downtrodden wife”role.
The supporting cast, free of character arcs, have more fun. Chris Haywood (star of last week’s Human Touch) is suitably grizzled and dissolute as Gauguin’s Tahitian confidante, while fellow local actor Nicholas Hope is simultaneously bristly and sympathetic as a priest misguided in his conviction to destroy the Tahitian culture. Also a nice presence is Alun Armstrong, an instantly recognizable “that guy” character actor with credits ranging from Braveheart and Patriot Games to Married… with Children, in the role of Pissaro.
In summary: Paradise Found is an entertaining primer for Gauguin newbies and a good example of Australian cinematic globalization, but it feels very, very familiar.
Next week: Sparring sisters reunite in Rachel Perkins’ Radiance (1998).