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The Mystery of Picasso

The Mystery of Picasso
Image Entertainment/Milestone
1956 / Color / 1:37 flat & 2:35 CinemaScope flat letterbox / 78 min. / Le Mystère Picasso / Street Date January 14, 2003 / $29.99
Starring Pablo Picasso, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Claude Renoir
Cinematography Claude Renoir
Film Editor Henri Colpi
Original Music Georges Auric
Produced and Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A Note from frequent Savant correspondent Chris Crywalt, 1/30/03:

In the fifties there was a spate of documentary films about art and artists that sought to capture the essence of great painters; Raymond Durgnat in Films and Feelings devoted a chapter to them, probing the aesthetic differences and similarities between painting and film. Henri-Georges Clouzot, fresh from a string of darker-than-noir thrillers like The Wages of Fear and Diabolique, instigated this filmic experiment, that works in surprising ways. Milestone has assembled the short feature with a number of useful extras, and created a special treat for followers of art.


In a studio, the painter, director and cinematograher ready an easel rigged to be filmed from the backside, so that we see every brushstroke of a painting while it is in progress. Without a break, and accompanied by different music cues, twenty or so paintings are created before our eyes.

The film starts with an abbreviated introduction. We see no 'genius at home' footage, no sunny exteriors that another film might imply inspire the artist. Picasso, shirtless, approaches his canvas. The narrator says that the film will allow us the best analysis of a painter that is possible, the privilege to watch him lay down every brushstroke as they happen.

For a while, it doesn't seem very promising, as the early images are barely more than impressionistic cartoon half-sketches. One of the first ones proceeds past what seems an apppropriately finished state, to be more or less ruined-looking. Interestingly, instead of being able to conclude that 'with every work of art there's a point of perfection' that one must attain without going beyond, we here realize that for every finished painting we see, the artist has has to deal with a living, growing entity, and only he could decide when it was finished.

The paintings have a little variety but are mostly of nudes, artist & model studies, bullfighting, and a few landscapes. Toward the end, there's one collage of vacation-like visuals that the artist alters several times. Just as it seems to near completion, he repaints it, changing variables and making it look darker and more oppressive. That's when we realize that because a painting-in-progress 'changes' with time, the 'mystery' is that Picasso is almost telling a story with his painting. It has anticipation ('looks like he's almost finished this one') and suspense ('what's he doing now?'). When the picture is done, we're left with a complex awareness of earlier images and abandoned directions. The visible work is just the top layer painted over the now-buried earlier versions.

One realizes that painters must look at their finished canvasses and think not of what's there, but of the earlier versions underneath that only they can remember, like the invisible alternate futures of a Luis Borges time-travel story. The creation of each picture is an animated film, an adventure where the director (Picasso) launches himself into regions unknown, and takes us with him.

Savant is woefully illiterate in Art 101 or even basic appreciation skills. The Mystery of Picasso didn't give me great insights about the painter or art. But it does afford us the curious excitement of experiencing the act of creation from as privileged a viewpoint as any studio visitor would get.

Exactly how the film was accomplished is not clear to Savant. Picasso appears to be on one side of an illuminated glass easel, and the camera on the other. But what we see is a 'front view' - the screen starts white, not clear, and we can't see Picasso through the glass 'canvas'. Also, if we were looking through the back of the easel, we'd only see the first brushstrokes - successive layers would remain invisible. So we must be really seeing the front of the canvas somehow, but without seeing the brush or Picasso's hand. Maybe I missed something essential and obvious, but this threw me entirely. The commentaries mention the problem of cutting the negative into hundreds of bits and getting smooth joins. This indicates that the film is edited to remove time gaps between brushstrokes, but we see the strokes going down on the picture, without a brush or hand being visible.

Making the rounds of U.S. revival houses at the moment is Henri-Georges Clouzot's Quai des Orfèvres. It's a highly-recommended mystery rarity unseen in the U.S. since its 1947 debut.

Image's DVD of The Mystery of Picasso has a good transfer that brings out the paintings in bright colors, which is a good thing. If the color had faded, the show would be almost worthless, and Picasso's work lost.  1 But this show is one of those rare films where the screen aspect ratio changes midway, when Picasso switches from boxy-shaped pictures, to a wide format. Apparently the first few reels were either shot flat, or in CinemaScope, with the periphery masked. Then, at the appropriate time, the masks retreat to enlarge the canvas. This probably worked great on old theaters designed for widescreen, where a normal film could suddenly stretch out as the curtains retreated. Nowadays, of course, most theatrical screens just narrow top to bottom to accomodate the Scope image, making the picture area actually become smaller. On many a multiplex screen, the smaller canvas of the first half of the film would look like 16mm. I feel safe in betting that this is one title that will never be shown in a Mall, however.

For the DVD, the Academy-shaped flat material fills the frame, and then gets chopped down to flat letterbox. This reverses what was once the, 'This is Cinerama' unfolding screen moment. It's kind of a letdown, but unless one was prepared to watch a tiny windowboxed image for 40 minutes, or until we have monitors that stretch left and right, it was probably the only thing to do.

One extra is exceptional. Guernica is a short film from 1950 that through camera moves 'animates' Picasso paintings as a backdrop to anti-war poetry. It's by Alain Resnais and is narrated by María Casarès and Jacques Pruvost.

The other extras are a pair of audio commentaries by noted art experts. Art students and aesthetes will probably find them a great resource of insight and knowledge; to Savant they're mostly the kind of thing that drove me out of Art classes with acute boredom. Consider that a confession and not criticism, although Ms. Parsons' commentary does have the feel of a tour guide. She's always breaking in with unneeded statements ("There's a wipe. That's a film technique") or telling us why we should go to the Picasso museum in Paris, as if giving us a recipe - it's one of her favorite places! Sure, I'll drop in the next time I'm visiting Brigitte Bardot. Ms. Parsons does have some useful facts to relate, like which paintings survived. I confess, however, that I would have liked to hear how cinematographer Claude Renoir (related both to the director and the famous painter) shot the darn thing - I get the feeling that the answer is ingeniously simple.

As Milestone's specialized product is not available in every video store, I've been asked to print this toll-free phone number (800-603-1104) to help buyers locate vendors.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Mystery of Picasso rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 2 commentaries: Peggy Parsons of the National Gallery of Art; Archie Rand, Muralist and Senior Professor of Visual Arts, Columbia University, Trailer, Alain Resnais' Guernica (1950, 13 min.)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 20, 2003


1. It appears that, to make the film the final artwork, almost all of the 'canvasses' were destroyed after production was over. So it's rather important that the negative not be allowed to fade. The disc and its commentators proudly state that the film is now a registered national treasure of France.

A Note from frequent Savant correspondent Chris Crywalt, 1/30/03:

Glenn, thanks for the review of one of my favorite films of all time, The Mystery of Picasso I'm not sure I knew it was out on DVD -- I know I looked for it, but I don't remember if I found it. If this is a new release, then I guess I didn't.

I'm a painter and a draftsman (in addition to my other various interests and professions). I've done very little and worked very slowly because I considered myself meticulous. But I was privileged to see Picasso when it played at the Film Forum in Manhattan and I was deeply inspired. I saw the value of simple scribbling and, taking that to heart, I jumped in to my own series of drawings. I've been selling them on eBay and have sold probably about 200 in the last year. So the film is inspirational! (You can see what I'm selling here.)

My understanding of the film was that it was shot in 'scope only for the painting parts, and those were filmed in stop motion, or rather animated like an oil painting Harryhausen. The drawing scenes were filmed through, as one site calls it, ``bleed-through ink and translucent paper'' -- that seems about right to me, although I suspect from the way the ink ran in places and the sounds of the drawing that it might have been ground glass. Two places say it's paper, though, so there you go. I'm surprised the DVD didn't say.

In addition to the art I found the film enjoyable for its view of the filmmaking process -- counting down feet of film and so on. It struck me as oddly both documentary-like and carefully rehearsed (how else would one get footage of running out of film?).

One thing you left out of your review was the music. I found the music to be excellent in spots and really, really intrusive in others. Mostly I was so entranced by the images I forgot how weird the music was. There's one avant garde that managed to stay avant, thank God.

Thanks for the review and the reminder that I've got to expand my DVD collection by at least one more disc. Chris.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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