Movie Reviews: The Mystery of Picasso (1956)

Title: The Mystery of Picasso
Release Date: 18 May 1956
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Production Company: Filmsonor

Part of my love for this movie has to do with circumstances under which I first saw it.  I was visiting San Francisco in 2002 and a restored print of The Mystery of Picasso was showing at the historic movie palace, The Castro Theatre.  Not only did we see a cool movie but got a live organ performance pre-showing.

20 years later, the documentary still resonates even on a small screen.  Pablo Picasso, probably the first celebrity painter of the mass media age (or maybe that was Dali?) creates original works of art for the camera, illustrating his creative process.  Some of the works are filmed in real time with Picasso using markers with special dyes that bleed through a paper canvas while the camera films from the other side.  Other painting are done using oils and collage and are filmed in a stop-motion style.  All are accompanied by exciting jazz or Spanish guitar, the painting at times seemingly synched to the music.

There’s even a part of the movie where they show “behind the scenes” with Picasso interacting with the director Clouzot and the cinematographer Claude Renoir.  There’s a dramatic scene where Picasso works to finish with only seconds of film left.  I remembered this happening at the end of the movie, heightening the drama, but it actually happens closer to the middle.  I couldn’t find any evidence of alternate versions of the film existing so I must be misremembering.

Anyhow, it’s fascinating how with just a few brushstrokes Picasso can create recognizable figures and a story (generally a painter working in a studio with nude models or bullfighting scenes).  For his ink sketches, I found the more details he added the more gaudy they became.  But the oil and collage work became even more fascinating as Picasso would fully change many details and backgrounds, erase and redesign the figures, thus making several effective variations on a theme.  It kind of makes one wonder how Picasso decided when a painting was “complete?”

Rating: ****1/2