Oh, it's so hard being a genius. You struggle to make art, pouring your soul onto canvas after canvas, accumulate enough to mount a show and idiots, IDIOTS! come and snicker at your work.
In "Wolf at the Door," the genius is Paul Gauguin, played here by Donald Sutherland, and perhaps the only thing tougher than being one is watching one. It's 1893 and Gauguin has returned to Paris from Tahiti with a load of paintings, the profits from which will enable him to return to the South Seas and live prosperously. His show, however, is a bust: Only Degas, who walks in and quickly buys a canvas, appreciates what he's doing, telling Gauguin that he paints like a wolf.
Left virtually penniless, Gauguin is stranded in Paris, which, compared with his island paradise with his 13-year-old wife, is demoralizingly overcivilized and barren.
For that matter, so is the movie. It doesn't tell us anything we didn't know about Gauguin from Anthony Quinn's performance in "Lust for Life." The emphasis in both films actually is that, unlike most great artists, Gauguin was a manly man. He liked to brawl and drink and knock over furniture. Also, women of all ages seemed to throw themselves at the guy. And so, what the movie becomes is a celebration not of his art, but of his potency.
The Danish director Henning Carlsen has put this film together as a tribute to the artist, but he doesn't seem to have been able to capture why the man, or his work, was remarkable. And because Carlsen and his screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, can't get inside the man, we're left with the impression that they like him because he was a bohemian, because he carried around a monkey on his shoulders or wore purple suits and eschewed conventional morality.
With this attitude toward their hero, you'd think that the filmmakers might have made a livelier film. But there aren't many memorable moments. The high point of the film, for me, was when Max von Sydow showed up as August Strindberg, wearing a hilariously pained expression and the most wonderful wig I've ever seen. (It looked a little like he had a Persian kitty sitting on his head.) Von Sydow is actually sort of fun in the movie; he plays Strindberg as if all his marbles had just rolled down a hole.
On the other hand, Sutherland's performance is imperious and grand and totally lifeless. Donald Sutherland has become a monumentally inauthentic actor; he can't even answer the door convincingly. And here, he never plays the man -- he plays the genius.
Wolf at the Door, at the Key, is unrated and contains some mildly suggestive material and nudity.