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Donald Sutherland’s brush with Gauguin

21 June 2024

It was with a heavy heart that Rakewell read of the death of Donald Sutherland (1935–2024). While the actor is perhaps best remembered for his exhilarating work in classics such as Don’t Look Now (1973), a film that haunts every visitor to Venice, and M*A*S*H (1970), which used its Korean War setting as cover for one of cinema’s most cutting critiques of the Vietnam War, let us not forget your correspondent’s favourite Sutherland roles: as President Coriolanus Snow in the Hunger Games franchise (2012–15) and ‘Tripp’ Darling in Dirty Sexy Money (2007–09). Clearly he had a good line in character names. But perhaps his most exciting part was as Paul Gauguin in The Wolf at the Door (1986).

Surely any film that contains the star power of Max von Sydow as Strindberg and Sutherland as Gauguin should be at the top of everyone’s watchlist. But it is also a fascinating education in art history. A man in a gallery says to Gauguin, ‘The abolition of perspective – no one can deny that it was at least an interesting gesture.’ Sutherland’s face is a picture of outrage: ‘It’s not a gesture – it’s the outcome of a struggle!’ he splutters, sounding more like a truculent child than a thwarted artist. There are useful insights into the studio process as Gauguin paints a naked beauty not for her likeness but for her form. We are also helpfully told – by Degas, of course – that Gauguin ‘paints like a wolf’. And who could resist the sight of Sutherland walking down a street with a monkey perched in the crook of his arm, another sign of the artist’s ‘wildness’?

It’s possible that elements of the film haven’t aged as well as the post-Impressionists – or perhaps they have aged in exactly the same way. There is a moment when Sutherland’s Gauguin says, with great feeling, of the Tahitians: ‘Because we all of us have forgotten what they have not forgotten: [pause for effect] the secrets of innocence.’ They don’t make them quite like this anymore, and perhaps for good reason, but right now Rakewell is seized with the impulse to sit in a big straw hat and brood in Sutherland’s syrupy tones: ‘Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.’

Donald Sutherland as Paul Gauguin in The Wolf at the Door (1986), directed by Henning Carlsen. Photo: Rolf Konow/Sygma via Getty Images