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Movie Review

Strokes of genius in ‘The Mystery of Picasso’

The creative process of Picasso is on display in “The Mystery of Picasso.”
The creative process of Picasso is on display in “The Mystery of Picasso.”Milestone Films

Unlike the creative process of poets and painters, says the voice-over narrator at the beginning of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1956 documentary, “The Mystery of Picasso,” that of a visual artist can actually be captured on-screen. “To understand what goes in a painter’s mind you need to follow his hand.”

Perhaps so, but as with the movie-making process itself, that can be slow going and usually dull.

Clouzot, in fact, seldom shows the artist’s hand at all but uses tricks to reproduce on the screen a painting in progress. He doesn’t penetrate the mystery of Picasso as promised — though an intense close-up of his uncanny black eyes might offer a glimpse. Instead he and his subject provoke thoughts about the nature of art and time, of evanescence and immortality. The simple fact that the score or so of paintings made during the film were destroyed at the end of the production makes an enigmatic statement about the value of artifacts that probably could have gone for a fortune at auction.

To create the illusion of a painting being created before your eyes Clouzot has Picasso — shirtless, in shorts, and at 75 , still as hale as the bulls that are a frequent subject — draw and paint on a semi-transparent surface which shows his disembodied strokes as they are made. It’s like a fancy Etch A Sketch or the world’s greatest game of Pictionary.

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At first the works are sketchy and black and white, but color is added, and the pictures become more complicated, protean, and elusive. As Picasso reworks a figure with different poses overlapping each other, the resulting, shape-shifting image offers insight into what is meant by Cubism.

About midway through the film Picasso takes a break. “I haven’t gone below the surface yet,” he says, and you can’t help but agree. He decides to switch from the inks he had been using to oils and to employ a wider canvas. The screen’s aspect ratio abruptly expands to Cinemascope size, and Clouzot turns to time-lapse photography to compress five hours of painting into 10 minutes. Some of the finished works are stunning — the problem is that Picasso doesn’t always seem to know when they are finished. The last work he deems “very bad,” so he blots it out and starts again.

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Newly restored for this re-release, “Mystery” shows neither Clouzot nor Picasso at his best; the film is a bit gimmicky and the sometimes-bombastic score by Georges Auric would be more appropriate for the heightened suspense of Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” (1953) or “Diabolique” (1955). But like Abbas Kiarostami’s last film, “24 Frames” (2017), in which the late Iranian auteur tries to show what transpired before and after the frozen moment of a snapshot, this film demonstrates how an artwork made in time and from time can offer a glimpse into eternity.

★ ★ ★
THE MYSTERY OF PICASSO

Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot . At the Museum of Fine Arts, various dates Jan. 16-31 . 78 min. Rated PG (topless septuagenarian painter, stylized nudes, smoking). In French, with subtitles.


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.