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With: Pablo Picasso, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Claude Renoir
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Henri-Georges Clouzot
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 78
Date: 05/04/1956

The Mystery of Picasso (1956)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Art Smart

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When I reviewed the recent Pollock, I noted that the most interesting scenes were the creative ones in which Ed Harris simply painted. The rest of the normal bio-pic scenes, with actors screaming at each other, were cut from the same old cloth. Now here comes a film from out of the past that took my notion and ran with it. The Mystery of Picasso documents 75 minutes of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) painting and drawing, and nothing else.

If you want to know about Picasso's childhood or what he ate for dinner or what he finds attractive in a woman, you'll have to look somewhere else. The movie doesn't even provide a commentary or an explanation as to what makes Picasso great. Amazingly, the audience members are invited to think for themselves.

The Mystery of Picasso was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977), the man behind two excellent Hitchcock knockoffs, The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955). The cinematography is by none other than Claude Renoir (1914-1993), who shot many films for his uncle Jean Renoir, such as the gorgeous The Golden Coach (1952), and who also happens to be the grandson of the painter Auguste Renoir. These two filmmakers found a way to document Picasso painting from the rear of his canvas, so that we can watch him without his body, his arm, or his brush blocking our view.

As we watch, myriad thoughts pass through our minds. The first one is, 'My God, we're watching Picasso create! How absolutely extraordinary!' As Picasso scribbles drawing after drawing, we begin to see patterns and preferences in his work, such as his love for horses, bullfighters, naked women, dwarves and bearded painters. We see how rudimentary, almost childlike sketches are changed into great images. Our jaw drops as Picasso rubs out and changes his creations' faces again and again. Each of these faces would be lost in time had Picasso been doing a normal painting, but on film, each of the faces is preserved, in order, forever.

Clouzot shoots early set-up scenes of himself, Renoir and Picasso in black and white followed by Picasso's paintings in full color. Just before the final reel, Picasso demands, "Get me my big canvas!" and the film suddenly switches to Cinemascope. The drawings now fill a giant, wide screen. He begins with a series of criss-crossed lines that turns into a delightful beach scene. The picture gradually turns darker and the characters in it turn more desperate. Finally Picasso grows fed up with the whole thing and scraps it. It's fascinating and heartbreaking. You want to scream at him to stop.

An earlier painting magically changes from flowers to a fish to a chicken. Another transforms from a scribble of a bull's head to a dramatic painting of a powerful bull. Though the time-lapsed process takes about 10 minutes of film, Picasso states that the bull painting took him five hours.

In his 1956 review of the film, Francois Truffaut pointed out that The Mystery of Picasso offers no perspective on where these drawings fit into Picasso's canon. He suggests that Clouzot should have opened the film with a montage of completed Picassos so that we have an idea of the man's style. Truffaut also complains, and I agree with him, that Georges Auric's score at times gets too carnival-like or too dramatic and overshadows the artwork.

The works that Picasso created on camera for this film were all destroyed (whether accidentally or on purpose is not clear) so that they exist now only on film. As a result, The Mystery of Picasso remains a unique marriage of film and art. Though it's more of a fascinating experiment than a fully-realized masterpiece, it should not be missed in this radiant new print, playing at the Castro Theater today through Thursday.

DVD Details: Milestone's must-own Blu-ray release in 2021 includes some of the bonuses from its 2011 DVD, including the two commentary tracks, by Peggy Parsons, curator, Film Program at the National Gallery of Art and by Archie Rand, painter and professor of Art at Columbia University. The Alain Resnais short film is no longer here, but we do get the 26-minute "My Father: Maya's Gaze," an interview with Maya Picasso (which appears to be new), a restoration demonstration (2 minutes), and a theatrical trailer. The HD picture is truly glorious. This is highly recommended.

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