THE MYSTERY OF PICASSO (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1956)

I have atoned for my gross underappreciation, for decades, of the cinema of Henri-Georges Clouzot, especially regarding The Wages of Fear (1953), which now appears on my Great Films List, and Diabolique (1954), which is in the running to appear there. I’ve now viewed, for the first time, another Clouzot classic, a quasi-documentary about Clouzot’s friend and neighbor Pablo Picasso, Le mystère Picasso. For nearly all the film’s length, we watch the twentieth century’s signature artist draw or paint, with inks or oils, one canvas after another. Clouzot’s film, which won a jury special prize at Cannes, is gorgeous and fascinating; it’s also a wee bit silly unless one takes the whole thing ironically, and tacky even if one does.

The film begins in black and white, with Clouzot’s disembodied voice substituting for the voice of God and Picasso’s elderly form casually clothed. (We later learn that Picasso routinely paints in the—oh, never mind.) Clouzot muses how wonderful it would have been had we been able to be inside Mozart’s mind when he composed and Rimbaud’s mind when he wrote. (I, for one, have never itched to be inside Rimbaud’s head—or John Malkovich’s, for that matter.) Well, too bad, but at least we have Picasso, the depth of whose mind, when he paints, Clouzot implies, we can penetrate just by watching him do his stuff. Clouzot, reaching for a simile, lights upon the obvious, likening the painter—this one or that—to a blind man groping through a white canvas in order to fill it “adventurously.” Let’s set aside that God’s timing must suck, for Picasso in 1955, when Clouzot filmed him, was no longer the “adventurous” cubist or abstractionist he once was but had selfconsciously settled into being a quasi-primitivist who whipped off “Picassos” for the marketplace. Instead, consider this: the blind man-thing, while it would contribute nicely to a matrix of remarks on the creative process, seems awfully lame when it stands alone, as it does here. But what do I know? I’m just a blind man groping for words to fill this page.

Different viewers may have differing opinions as to how deeply we enter Picasso’s brain by watching his artwork take shape, from opening lines to numerous paint-overs as the artist goes back, lurches forward, considers, reconsiders, spoils this in order to redeem that, and so forth. The canvases become more and more complex, at least to the eye, as the normal-sized screen stretches to CinemaScope to accommodate Picasso’s staged request for more space. Be forewarned: there are a lot of naked female breasts and quite a lot of bull—I mean, bulls. “This is very bad,” Picasso says of one of his creations. He should know.

Clouzot’s process captivates, even enraptures. A translucent screen, specially lighted, allows Picasso to remain invisible on one side of it as his drawing or painting appears, as if out of nowhere, on the reverse side, to which Clouzot has aimed his camera. Later, time-lapsed photography reduces five hours to ten minutes—although shameless I mused that the full five hours it took to complete this painting, not all that much time, really, were correlative to the glib result. We’re not talking Guernica (1937) here, or Ma Jolie (1912)—powerful works. We’re talking pretty pictures.*

Clouzot intrudes on the scene now and then—for instance, when he guides the camera “behind the screen” to show the process of these magically appearing paintings. Clouzot also puts Picasso in a rush to accommodate the little bit of film left in the camera at one point, and imposes other, similar strictures that at least raise the possibility that the whole film is intended as some kind of put-on reflecting the fact that, unlike serious art, cinema is a commercial venture governed by available funds, time constraints, overweening technology, and the whims of audiences. When Clouzot questions him about what the audience might think of one of the paintings he is creating, Picasso responds, “I’ve never worried about the public, and I’m not about to start at my age.” Clouzot may wish that he himself had the luxury of such freedom. Regardless, his interventions and impositions, as well as the contrivance of Picasso’s often scripted utterances,** make for a lumpy documentary.

The ruse of entering Picasso’s mind exempts Clouzot from providing any kind of context—aesthetic, biographical, whatever. (There’s a bit about Picasso’s friendship and professional rivalry with Matisse, who recently died. Picasso, then in his mid-70s, would live another eighteen years.) Compare the complex biographical, social and political environment that Peter Watkins paints in his magnificent Edvard Munch (1975), so that each time Munch puts brush to canvas we feel how much pours into the creative act, including, for instance, the effect of the cramped quarters of Munch’s impoverished family life. For me, though, the very best in the genre of films about painters and paintings is a documentary that, like Clouzot’s, watches an artist at work, although in this case in a richer context that embraces the artist’s interactions with spouse, children, friends and neighbors, and passers-by. This is Victor Erice’s stunning El sol del membrillo (Dream of Light, 1992), about Spain’s Antonio López García. Unlike Clouzot, Erice has no interest in deducing the creative process from a series of lines and brushstrokes; his holistic film retains the grand mystery of creativity and inspiration. One of the films I most cherish and watch repeatedly, Dream of Light, also known as Quince Tree of the Sun, won both the International Critics’ Prize and the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes.***

Indispensible are color cinematographers Javier Aguirresarobe and Ángel Luis Fernández to Erice’s at once humane and transcendental masterpiece. Claude Renoir, Clouzot’s color cinematographer, is equally important to The Mystery of Picasso. Renoir is the grandson of impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whose inspirations were humanity, Nature and his own dream of light.

* Presumably to help fund the film, Clouzot disseminated the fiction that every piece that Picasso created for the film would be destroyed after the film’s completion. The film thus became the only means for viewing these Picassos. It turns out, however, that Picasso kept the pieces.

** At the end of the film, after completing and signing the last piece for the film, Picasso declares, “This is the end.”

*** Boring: Carlos Saura’s 1999 Goya in Bordeaux. Good: Jos Stelling’s 1977 Rembrandt-1669. Disgusting: Derek Jarman’s 1986 Caravaggio. (But some may counter that it’s Jarmanic and Caravaggiosish.)




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