Le mystère Picasso (1956)

MYSTERY OF PICASSO, THE (Mystère Picasso, Le)

(director/writer: Henri-Georges Clouzot; cinematographer: Claude Renoir ; editor: Henri Colpi ; music: Georges Auric; cast: Claude Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Henri-Georges Clouzot; Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Henri-Georges Clouzot; Milestone Films; 1956-France)

“Watching Picasso lay down his brushstrokes does not make for exciting drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Henri-Georges Clouzot (“The Wages of Fear”/”Diabolique”) directs this almost completely silent film, a pseudodocumentary on a shirtless and wearing only shorts Pablo Picasso at work. It features the friends of the artist such as Claude Renoir (grandson of painter Auguste and nephew of director Jean), Georges Auric turning in the jazzy score and the director Clouzot who got the reluctant Picasso to be photographed on film.

It’s all about the 75-year-old Pablo painting from a clean canvas in his studio, with the aim being that “One just needs to look at his hands [to] know what’s going through a painter’s mind.” I found this statement to be misleading, and the film never uncovered much about what the artist was thinking. Even a soft-ball question might have elicited much more than what was gained in this muted experimental venture.

Picasso paints without a break, and to break up the silence he is accompanied by different music cues. In the end there are some twenty created paintings in black and color ink. To get the artist out of the shot and give the viewer a clear look at the canvas, Clouzot placed an illuminated piece of paper in front of the camera and placed Picasso behind the paper (the special camera was in back of the artist and it was shot in ‘Scope only for the painting parts). A slow-motion camera was used when Picasso painted in oil. Watching Picasso lay down his brushstrokes does not make for exciting drama but for those who never saw an artist in the flesh creating, this film offers a groundbreaking examination of the creative process; if you will, a pure look at the legendary Picasso.

The film won in 1956 the Special Jury prize at Cannes, but was a box-office failure. I believe the film was shot in one day and supposedly all the paintings were destroyed afterwards (rumors persist that a few remain in private collections). None of the paintings appealed to me; they consisted mostly of nudes, landscapes and a colorful bull-fighting one. Picasso was up against time and it seemed more of a show-off exhibition of speed and artfulness than trying to capture any spark of thought. The result is every painting is only a mundane work. The trickster film, more about inventing ways of filming over an artist’s shoulder than anything else, offered no critique or additions or particular insight into art. But with that being said, it still has value because it offers a rare opportunity to see Picasso at work.