The Mystery of Picasso: Landmark Film of a Legendary Artist at Work, by Henri-Georges Clouzot

Pablo Picas­so’s art emerges in front of our eyes in this remark­able 1956 film by the French mas­ter of sus­pense, Hen­ri-Georges Clouzot.

The Mys­tery of Picas­so (in French Le Mys­tère Picas­so) is a unique col­lab­o­ra­tion between film­mak­er and painter. Pauline Kael called it “One of the most excit­ing and joy­ful movies ever made.” The film is not so much a doc­u­men­tary as a care­ful­ly con­trived cin­e­mat­ic depic­tion of Picas­so’s cre­ative process. While paint­ing is gen­er­al­ly expe­ri­enced as a fixed art form, in The Mys­tery of Picas­so we watch as it evolves over time.

In the first half of the 75-minute film, Picas­so uses col­or pens to make play­ful doo­dles on translu­cent screens. These sequences bear some resem­blance to a 1950 film by Bel­gian film­mak­er Paul Hae­saerts called Vis­ite à Picas­so (A vis­it with Picas­so), which fea­tures Picas­so paint­ing on glass. As Clouzot’s film pro­gress­es, the art­works become more refined. Picas­so switch­es from ink pens to oil brush­es and paper col­lage. A work that took five hours to cre­ate unfolds in a ten-minute time-lapse. At the 54-minute mark Picas­so says “Give me a large can­vas,” and the film switch­es to Cin­e­maS­cope.

Indeed, in The Mys­tery of Picas­so, the film itself is the artist’s can­vas. Clouzot draws atten­tion to this fact through a series of con­trivances. At one point he high­lights the tem­po­ral con­straints of the medi­um by cre­at­ing an ele­ment of sus­pense. He asks  cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Claude Renoir (grand­son of the Impres­sion­ist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir) how much film is left, and then we watch as the film counter ticks away the time while the 76-year-old painter races to fin­ish a paint­ing. When the The Mys­tery of Picas­so ends, the artist “signs” the film by paint­ing his sig­na­ture on a can­vas large enough to fill the screen. As Clouzot lat­er wrote, “It is some­one else’s film, that of my friend Pablo Picas­so.”

The Mys­tery of Picas­so (now added to our col­lec­tion of Free Online Movies) per­formed poor­ly at the box office but won the Spe­cial Jury Prize at the 1956 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. In 1984 the French gov­ern­ment declared it a nation­al trea­sure. Picas­so’s paint­ings from the pro­duc­tion were report­ed­ly destroyed after­ward. They exist only in the film.

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