Le Mystère Picasso (aka, The Mystery of Picasso) (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)
In a large studio space, with its unseen walls beyond the deep shadows surrounding them, a shirtless 70-something Pablo Picasso creates, on a semi-transparent surface and with special inks, a series of increasingly more complex paintings, with the only breaks coming in the form of brief conversation with renowned French director Henri-Georges (Wages of Fear) Clouzot.
The truth is, other than recently having impressed family members by having been able to properly chose ‘cubism’ as the visual style invented by Picasso during a trivia game a few years back, I’m pretty much a complete philistine in regards to the world of painters and paintings (and in most art forms outside of the cinematic one). However, watching these paintings magically create before us, with the early ones coming to life through quick and loose strokes from the fast moving brush hand of the unseen Picasso (he’s entirely hidden behind the canvas, drawing in reverse for the camera), was quite revelatory for me. Perhaps it’s common to the best of painters, but the sheer assuredness of his approach, quickly drawing lines and arcs and curves that at first appear disparate, yet eventually come together as a whole (and, which, for some of them, in fits of revised creativity, you can witness the artist suddenly changing his mind mid-stream into something else, never losing a beat) is inspiring to witness (and perhaps common to those in the know, unlike moi).
With each painting coming together over a selected piece of classical music to deepen the mood (except the first one, which is just as effectively accompanied only by the sound of the individual brushes doing their work, either drawing outlines or filling in large swaths of black), Picasso’s paintings eventually move to larger, wide canvases and more elaborate designs, such as adding paper cut-outs (which I can’t say I even know if he was famous for – as I said, I was happy to fool some family members with my knowledge by correctly blurting out ‘cubism!’ at a gathering) and tons of impressive color. The photography moves from real-time (usually with a few gentle cuts in-between to lessen the duration) to staggered time-laps shots for the more elaborate and time consuming pieces (Picasso says in voiceover over one, something like “The audience will never know it took me five hours to do this one!”). And it’s all quite engaging and inspiring.
The single, surprisingly profound cinematically-experimental approach for one of the canvas creations that Clouzot employs is by first having Picasso’s invisible hand create the portrait before the camera, then, upon completion, playing it in normal-speed reverse so the painting summarily un-paints and disappears forever before our eyes, with this simple act of camera trickery managing to create an unexpected sense of something like pathos at the inevitability of what the fate of the canvas is to be. Years previous, I remember being wowed by an experimental short film created by two close friends who took on this simple forward-then reverse creation of a painting approach (one of them is a painter), with equal effectiveness I have to say, and now I wonder if they didn’t get the idea from here.
Most of the short casual discussions between Picasso and Clouzot are about Picasso talking about his desire through these efforts to show the layers of depth he tries to achieve with his work (and may I dare say, and chance revealing an arrogance that comes with ignorance, but in a few cases, especially the early ones, I loved the beautiful outline work and felt they were already done without all the wildly bold shadings he would add!). There is one segment that interestingly (if perhaps, I suspect, a bit staged) sets up some nice intrigue with Clouzot claiming they only have five minutes of film left in the can with Picasso determined to finish his latest creation within that time frame (with Clouzot counting down), but other than that, the two come across as chums sharing an easy playful charm.
As the aging, yet physically vital, master himself quietly walks off into the surrounding darkness, having moments before explained to the director that he will destroy all the paintings we have watched him create, with their remaining lives to be one on celluloid only, my thought was how nice it was to be granted, through this fascinating method created between painter and director, a glimpse at a celebrated artist’s process of creation.