The Mystery of Picasso

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 18, 2015

He’s a volcano! Long ago, as a callow youth who was trying to learn how films worked, I felt obligated to like this. These years later I find it irresistible. Thank you, art major daughter! Not that I’m having more than an informed layman’s experience, but one of the best thing about this marvelous document is that it makes me a more informed laymen.

Dare I? Picasso is more antical than monumental here, having fun and making jokes, showing off and deprecating himself at the same time. He’s the star, but it’s director Clouzot and ace cinematographer Renoir (Jean’s nephew!) that make this more than a lark, or a more cheerful version of Let it Be. (Let’s also acknowledge the tremendous contributions of M. Auric, the composer.) These filmmakers are doing at least two things as they shoot and assemble. For one thing they reveal something that you never get in the museum, no matter how carefully you look. Did you know this? I didn’t. It turns out that each painting is a story unfolding! It’s always that way for the painter, but here the stroke-by-stroke unfolding, the eventual climax and conclusion are for the onlooker too. In fact, the process is so compelling that the onlooker now becomes an actual, out-and-out reader.

Then there’s the healthy, direct, un-neurotic self-reflexivity: they give us little double stories (the subject, and the executing of the subject), in addition to bringing out the processes of drafting and development. What imagination, speed, anticipation, facility! That last painting really is a mess, and we know it before Picasso even says it. But it’s so surpassing beautiful on the way to being an utter failure. And he’s so undaunted by the disaster. “Now I know what to do.”  The Mystery of Picasso is obviously a Romantic celebration of genius, but a closer look reveals an even more impressive, affecting affirmation of enlightenment humanism. What a piece of work is man…