Arrow Video: The Mystery of Picasso (1956) - Reviewed

After winning both the Golden Bear at the 1953 Berlin Film Festival and the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for the French blockbuster thriller The Wages of Fear and his Hitchcockian psychological horror film Diabolique, French filmmaking maestro Henri-Georges Clouzot took a brief hiatus from fictional narrative storytelling.  A painstakingly perfectionist and fastidious auteur, Clouzot made a detour from feature film directing to instead turn his cameras on the great Cubist painter Pablo Picasso in his one and only documentary film to date, The Mystery of Picasso.

Predated by Paul Haesaerts’ 1949 Belgian documentary Visit to Picasso which photographed the artist from the other side of a glass plate which he painted upon, Clouzot’s documentary utilizes a similar visual approach with transparent canvases which the director films from the other side of the canvas being painted.  In a wild bit of technical bravura, mid-picture Clouzot even switches from Academy Ratio 1.33:1 black-and-white photography to panoramic CinemaScope 2.55:1 color widescreen photography, providing more room for Picasso to illustrate with time-lapse editing designed to show in quick succession how the painter arrived at his finished drawings. 

Something of an outlier for Clouzot who mostly keeps out of the way with some additional pressure put on Picasso here and there, The Mystery of Picasso functions like a moving art installation with a finished canvas being wiped off before a new one begins.  Though largely silent despite some occasional words exchanged by Clouzot and Picasso, much of the soundtrack alternates between production audio capturing the soft echoes emanating from paintbrushes dipped into ink and soft orchestral pieces by Georges Auric accompanying the paintings in motion.

Cinematography by Jean Renoir’s nephew Claude, who also went on to shoot The Spy Who Loved Me, is naturally elegant and ornate though the real stars of the piece are Picasso’s paintings which seem to come to life when shot and presented in motion on film.  One standout sequence near the end shows one drawing evolving constantly into a series of several paintings which come and go like the weather, changing from frame to frame rapidly.  The progress of the paintings changes dramatically as the film proceeds also, moving from black and white marker drawings to oil paintings bursting with color and detail.

Winning the Special Jury Prize at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, The Mystery of Picasso today remains something of an outlier in the otherwise uncompromising provocateur’s oeuvre and for Picasso fans doesn’t seek to solve any of the mysteries surrounding the Cubist painter.  If anything, watching the film is like being taken through an art museum one painting at a time.  The experience of Clouzot’s film can either be, depending on the viewer, hypnotic or soporific.  For myself, it’s a curious change of pace for the director who doesn’t try to figure out Picasso so much as he tries to capture him in the act of artistic creative expression.  Clouzot fans will come away feeling a little perplexed but intrigued while Picasso fans will likely emerge elated with this.

--Andrew Kotwicki