The Curmudgeon


Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Picasso Mystery

Henri-Georges Clouzot 1956

Having made his two most successful thrillers, The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955), Henri-Georges Clouzot directed The Picasso Mystery. Not exactly a documentary, except in the very loosest sense of a "non-fiction film", it starts with a brief narration in which the construction of a painting is poetically compared to a blind man's use of his hands to bring forth shape and meaning from a void; and almost all of its running time is taken up with the emergence of Picasso's patterns, masks and matadors from a blank white sheet.

Like many of Clouzot's thrillers, The Picasso Mystery shows no particular interest in solving a puzzle. It makes no attempt to analyse Picasso, either by getting him or others to comment on his work or by exploring his biography. There are no interviews in the usual sense and, except at the start, there is no narration; a few brief, and presumably staged, dialogues between the artist and the director are scattered at intervals through the film. The first of these shows how Picasso's technique has been brought to life: the painter works from behind a translucent vertical screen, with the camera on the other side. After one elaborate piece is finished, Clouzot worries that the speeding-up of the film will lead viewers to believe that Picasso took only ten minutes to produce it. Picasso asks him how long it really took, and is informed that he has been at work for several hours. "Well, now they know," Picasso says.

Several of the paintings are "completed" several times over, the sinuous ink sketches at least as aesthetically pleasing as the full-colour finished works. An advantage of the medium, of course, is that the pictures' earlier stages are not destroyed by being subsumed into the final version; this comes in particularly useful in the case of a vast seaside panorama, which moves through a number of incarnations until Picasso finally decides it has "gone wrong". The artist destroyed all the paintings he created for the film, so that they now exist only in the luminous, continually evolving form captured by Clouzot's camera. The magnificent music to which they emerge is by Georges Auric, who also composed the score for Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast.


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