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Image Entertainment presents
The Mystery of Picasso (Le Mystère Picasso) (1956)

"I'm never worried about the audience, and I'm not about to start at my age."
- Pablo Picasso

Review By: debi lee mandel  
Published: February 19, 2003

Stars: Pablo Picasso, the artwork of Picasso
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

MPAA Rating: G for (figurative art)
Run Time: 01h:14m:40s
Release Date: January 14, 2003
UPC: 014381057720
Genre: art


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A A+B-B+ A

DVD Review

The Mystery of Picasso is the ultimate document on the process of the most prolific master of 20th-century art, Pablo Picasso. In 1955, this celebrated artist, then 74 years old, agreed to paint before the camera. In a brilliant move, Picasso sets to work on a unique mechanism: A vertical easel holds a glass plate on which the paper is mounted. Using saturating inks, the camera catches the work in progress from the other side of the substrate, without the "distraction" of the artist, his arm or even his brush.

There is only one Picasso, and only one film of this kind. From the first stroke, this is cinematic magic. More importantly, this is the intuitive genius of Picasso on display; it's as if we can see his thoughts as they come to him, as they translate from his mind to his brush. If you are a painter watching this, you are familiar with the sensations this creates, and something more extraordinary can happen as you see his work progress: Picasso makes mistakes and paints them out, sometimes successfully, other times not. This is encouraging. If you are not a painter, you just might want to be after viewing this; Picasso makes it seem so simple. If nothing else, one might better comprehend the complexity of skill made manifest in a single line—it's good to know the rules before you break them.

Director Henri-Georges Clouzot (Les Diaboliques) constructs his film as a kind of suspense thriller. The first drawing is accompanied only by the scratching noise of the artist's marker as he works in real time. He draws his old friend and rival, Matisse, whom he depicts studying one of the older painter's signature odalisques. (Matisse had died just months before, and his visage would appear in Picasso's work from time to time until his own death.) The drawing done, Picasso begins with a brush and still working in black, goes too far—if you don't ruin your work, your work is ruined—yet continues, far beyond beauty to the ruinous. The second is done with brushes, in color, accompanied by Georges Auric's (Blood of a Poet, Rififi) orchestrations. This, too, features Matisse, this time standing over the artist himself, who here is dwarfed and clownish, an homage to the older man. Matisse's death haunts him.

What amazes is Picasso's courage and confidence; he starts drawing anywhere and ends up where he wants. (I admit to rendering the figure basically from top to bottom; Picasso can begin with the curve of the back and everything falls into place.) This unique aspect of his talent may not have been known to the public if not witnessed here by the camera.

The pieces continue to build in color and complexity, consistently accompanied by music—sometimes supporting, sometimes distracting—in real time. In chapter seven, The King and Queen, the image begins to appear in time-lapse sequences, changing the pace dramatically. By chapter nine, Fish's Tail, a second camera is now over Picasso's shoulder and our view flips and back and forth. It's here Clouzot succumbs to a bit of whimsy, cutting to himself, the nervous director, as the film reel is about to run out and Picasso attempts to "beat the clock." Filming goes back to real time until Chapter 14, Goat Head, when the medium changes to oils, which are opaque and cannot be filmed from the back. Layers of paint appear and disappear as Picasso re-organizes his composition. This is exciting stuff, but if the film hasn't captivated you by now, it might feel like watching paint dry.

"Give me a large canvas."

For Chapter 15 until the film's end, the format dramatically widens out to 2.35:1 and Picasso begins one of several paint-and-paper collages, this a geometric still life. Although captured in animation-style time-lapse, this last set of paintings is by far the more interesting as Picasso alternately wipes and washes layer upon layer, restructuring shape and composition until he is satisfied.

As in most thrillers, there is a suspenseful climax. The grand finale is a beach scene, the most ambitious canvas in the film and uncharacteristically busy for Picasso. It begins innocently enough, a series of lines and geometric shapes that moves into Fauvist color before devolving into a wretched cacophony the master himself cannot control. He attempts to rescue his composition with collage, but fails. "This is going wrong." As if turning back the hands of time, Picasso courageously removes the pasted papers, wipes down the paint in certain areas. Still nothing. All is not lost, however; the artist now understands where this exercise has led him and so begins again on a fresh canvas to achieve it. Laying down areas of bright color, he creates something that again echoes Matisse, taking inspiration from his The Joy of Life, Luxe, calme et volupte and one of his largest canvases, Bathers by the River. As Picasso was to have said, "In the end, there is only Matisse."

(Images below are of various stages of the above described "failed canvas.")

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 OneTwo
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyesyes
Anamorphicnono


Image Transfer Review: The transfer here is difficult to judge. Whereas much of the source material is blighted—most vulgar are the shifting streaks and grain plaguing the black-and-white drawings—the color images are stunningly clean and free of debris. While none of this appears to be a result of digitalization, there seems to have been less attempt to stabilize the grain than one would wish. Also, while not terribly noticeable on the TV screen, when I ran the disc on my computer the image rattled in the frame almost unbearably throughout.

Black-and-white is used for the sequences in which Picasso and members of the film crew appear, and the contrast is dreary. Blacks engulf most of the detail, much like the black strokes of the first drawing obliterate the original ink lines. The grayscale is very narrow, although the whites do not blow out as might be expected.

While inconsistent, nothing here detracts from the purpose, but a little more work would have gone a long way.

(Note: Do not be confused by the information in the table above. The final third of the film was shot in Cinemascope, so both aspect ratios are original and correct.)

Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrenchno


Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby mono track more than suffices here. The percussive music occurring over several of the segments carry surprisingly believable bass. Although the score becomes overbearing in spots, this would have been so in the original. Only slightly tinny at times, overall the music is rendered well enough.

What little dialogue there is can be readily understood, if one is familiar with French.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Peggy Parsons, National Gallery of Art; Archie Rand, Columbia University
Packaging: Unknown
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Guernica, a short film by Alain Resnais and Robert Hessons
Extras Review: This section is where this Milestone release departs from the usual art packages of which Image has availed us. There's not one but two commentary tracks, a related film short on Picasso's Guernica, and a theatrical trailer. English subtitles are removable.

The first commentary is by Peggy Parsons "of the National Gallery of Art," who limits herself to reading what others have written about the artist (many by Arianna Huffington) or describing the action on screen ("And you see what he's doing..."). Exactly what her title may be is unknown, but her track reads as one by a docent, or by a junior high school teacher. Ms. Parsons neither recognizes the figure of Matisse nor the homage paid to him, thereby setting the stage for mistrust early on. This commentary is recommended for younger viewers; read any book about Picasso and you'll gain more knowledge than Ms. Parsons imparts.

Archie Rand offers the second commentary. He's a professor of Visual Arts at Columbia knows his subject intimately. Reciting from what seems to be an essay he's written, Rand's insights are more informative and if nothing else, read with a poetic cadence that might be the most interesting accompaniment to the film. He's got a thing about what he calls "Picasso's generosity," and does occasionally discuss the subject of a particular piece before any telling details are laid down, so one might want to view the film in its entirety before playing this track or else be forewarned of "spoilers."

"Women and children all have the same red roses in their eyes."

Guernica (1950), a film (13m:11s), by Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad, La Guerre est finie) and Robert Hessens that uses various works by Picasso along with images of newspaper headlines to illustrate an anti-war sentiment, with his mural Guernica (1935-7), painted as a cry against the Spanish Civil War, as its centerpiece. The reading by Jacques Pruvost and actress Maria Casarès (Children of Paradise, Cocteau's Orphée) is très sérieux and reads like a Beat anthem—it was written by poet Paul Eluard—and is supported by a properly discordant score. The image shows the wear of time and, like the main feature, has a preponderant darkness, but one can still be moved by its content as intended.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

A film as unique as Picasso himself in which toreadors and their victims, reclining nudes and the rare aubergine appear on the screen as the artist realizes them. Inspiring and relentlessly authentic in its representation of the artist at work, and named a National Treasure by the government of France, this reviewer highly recommends this as the most important film made on the subject of art in the 20th century.

 


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