Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Surviving Picasso (1996)

“May you be painted by Picasso!”—Parisian curse

James Ivory’s Surviving Picasso (1996) is a fascinating failure.  It’s as if someone made a pretty good film about Miles Davis but wasn’t allowed to use Davis’s music in the soundtrack.  Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and director Ivory were denied access to Françoise Gilot’s memoirs—on which a good portion of Surviving Picasso is based—by Françoise herself, and forbidden from showing any of Picasso’s actual works by his children, who control the Picasso Foundation.  Apparently there was some disagreement over the screenplay.  Picasso, genius and monster, would have loved the irony of some of the people he most abused in his life defending his honor against a company of artists exceedingly capable of translating that life to the screen. Picasso was able to inspire astonishing loyalty among the lovers he discarded, the friends he tormented, and the art dealers he exploited.

The Ivory team wound up using fake Picassos and cribbing most of Françoise’s commentary from the 1988 biography Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, by Arianna Stassinopoulis Huffington.  The latter is a great read for one of those long winter nights, although it was savaged by critics.  Savaged for much the same reasons the movie was.  In neither are you going to learn much about Picasso’s artistic development.  I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. What you do learn is why some of that art makes your skin crawl—particularly if you’re a woman.

A visit to the major “Picasso Erotique” show at Montreal’s Musée de Beaux-Arts this summer made two things clear to me.  First, that the seemingly unlimited variety, technical perfection, and sheer power of Picasso’s work is overwhelming. His catalogue contains some 50,000 pieces of art. He said, “When I work I leave my body outside the door—the way Muslims leave their shoes outside the mosque….God makes a lot of mistakes—He’s  tried everything, like me….There are painters who make themselves a little cake mould, and then they bake cakes—always the same cakes.  You can try anything in painting, provided you never do it again.”

His urge to create and innovate never flagged.  Mastery of one style or medium (and he mastered them all) meant it was time to go on to a new style, a new medium.  One of the fuller measures of Picasso’s genius was the fact that the two regimes which utterly despised everything he stood for esthetically embraced the living painter.  Picasso became a kind of accidental hero of the French Resistance for continuing to live and work in Nazi-occupied Paris.  Surviving Picasso opens with a pair of befuddled, obviously intimidated Nazi officers being lectured to by the Master.  After the war, Picasso became a figurehead for the Stalinist Communists—who were at the same time busy purging their own country of all traces of the decadent, anti-proletarian, petty bourgeois avant-gardism for which Picasso was famous.  What an insatiable appetite for self-aggrandizement the man must have had!  Even an audience of philistines and puritanical Neanderthals was better than none at all.

The second thing “Picasso Erotique” made clear to me was that a terrific amount of misogyny went into his art.  Surviving Picasso nails that one down.

Picasso may have spent a lot of time with poets like Jean Cocteau and Guillaume Apollinaire, but his literary mentor was surely the Marquis de Sade.

So whom do you get to play the genius, the monster, the seducer, the minotaur who devours young girls?  Ivory chose Anthony Hopkins.  He’d already worked with Hopkins on The Remains of the Day.    Remembering Hopkins’ more recent role in The Silence of the Lambs, I thought he’d be ideal. Despite Hopkins’ best efforts, however, he doesn’t quite hit the mark.  In hindsight, perhaps spending all that time inside Picasso’s head was a good apprenticeship for Hannibal Lecter.

Hopkins is spot on in giving us Picasso the charmer and satyr.  He’s also right on with his mordant wit— this was a man who could handle words as well as he handled paint. Surviving Picasso has some of his choicest lines, like “Painting can’t be taught, it can only be found.”  Or “The older I get the more ardent grows my imagination.  When I was 25 I didn’t need imagination.”  Less flattering: “I really like intelligent women—sometimes.  Of course, I like stupid ones too.”

The production design of the film doesn’t hurt either.  I doubt we’ll ever get a better physical sense of Picasso’s studios and the French landscapes and villas in which he moved and worked.

Anthony Hopkins looks uncannily like Picasso. James Ivory delights in filming scenes based on classic photos of Picasso—such as the one of him walking behind Françoise on a beach, holding a parasol over her head as if she were some Hindu princess.

So we’ve got Picasso’s face, his charm, his cruelty.  What’s missing?

The eyes, for one.  In photos of Picasso where he isn’t smiling you can’t avoid those eyes.  Shiva’s eyes, not Krishna’s.  The eyes of a man who never hesitated to demolish artistic conventions and human lives in order to remake them in his own image.

Also missing is a full sense of Picasso’s physical presence.  Photos of the man radiate power.  Even in his 80s he possessed a physique worthy of Rodin.  That physique came from a lifetime of physical exertion—sculpting, modeling, painting, assembling, manipulating.  What immense reserves of energy does it take to produce 50,000 pieces of art, many of them monumental?  Hopkins seems a bit to genteel for the role, lacking in brute force.  Hopkins gives us Picasso the Matador, when what’s needed is more of Picasso the Bull.  Hopkin’s monstre sacré is more Oscar Wilde than de Sade.  Who is the actor who could give us the whole Picasso?  The young Marlon Brando of Streetcar Named Desire comes to mind.

And speaking of bullfights, I also missed in Hopkins’ portrait any sense of Picasso’s strong ties to his native Spain.  Although he spent most of his life in France, Picasso never abandoned his roots.  The fall of his homeland to fascism inspired some of hisgreatest art.  He wrote reams of Spanish poetry.  Bullfights were a center of his social life.  There has to have been a connection between the controlled violence of the arena and the controlled violence with which he deconstructed reality in his art.

I hope the day will come when a great Spanish actor tackles this role.  There is a great film that still remains to be made, of Picasso in Paris from just prior to the First World War and into the Thirties.  This was a time when Paris had perhaps the most astounding confluence of artistic genius and ego—in painting, sculpture, music, dance, and literature—since Renaissance Florence.  What a cinematic canvas it would make—Matisse, Braque, Cocteau, Aragon, Satie, Diaghilev, Hemingway, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Rousseau, Breton, Chagall, Man Ray, Rivera, and dozens more!  It’s time that someone did for 20th century art what Francis Coppola did for the Mob.

Before I get accused of Picassoesque misogyny myself, I’d better say something about the other lead role in Surviving Picasso.  A newcomer, British actress Natascha McElhone, plays Picasso’s lover Françoise Gilot.  Françoise first met Picasso in 1944.  She was 23 and he was in his 60s.  She spent ten tumultuous years as his mistress and muse and the mother of two of his children—Claude and Paloma.  An artist in her own right, Françoise was the only one of Picasso’s lovers to walk away from him.  That’s much more of an accomplishment than it might at first seem.  In some superb secondary roles, Surviving Picasso gives the viewer a look at the fate of some of Picasso’s other lovers.  There’s Jeanne Lapotaire as the Russian dancer Olga Khokhlova, Picasso’s first wife, whom he abandoned and who went mad.  There’s Susannah Harker as Marie-Thérèse Walter, mother of his first child, who trailed behind Picasso her whole life and hanged herself on the fiftieth anniversary of their first meeting.  And the gifted photographer Dora Maar (Julianne Moore), whose life also self-destructed after she was drawn into Picasso’s orbit.  Last but not least, Diane Venora as Picasso’s second and last wife, Jacqueline Roque, a portrait in utter self-abnegation and ruthless possessiveness worthy of Dickens.  The psychological dynamics of Picasso’s pseudo-harems reminded me a lot of those in Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern.

Natascha McElhone does a credible job as Françoise. She avoids the trap of coming across as a simple victim.  We can appreciate her sense of independence, grounded in her own artistic talent and her ability to respond to her lover’s mind games.  Even then it was a close call.  Picasso would tell her she was nothing without him and there were moments when she almost believed him.  Her autobiography, Life with Picasso, was a final exorcism.  Amazingly, it was also an homage.  The following lines conclude both the book and the film:

“My coming to him, he said, seemed like a window that was opening up and he wanted it to remain open.  I did, too, as long as it let in the light.  When it no longer did, I closed it, much against my own desire.  From that moment on, he burned all the bridges that connected me to the past I had shared with him.  But in doing so he forced me to discover myself and thus to survive.  I shall never cease being grateful to him for that.”

Wow.  That’s sort of like Ariadne thanking Theseus for abandoning her, pregnant, on an island after she’d helped him kill the Minotaur.

Picasso was an equal opportunity jerk.  Men didn’t fare any better with him.  Surviving Picasso gives excellent brief portraits of Picasso’s doomed son Paulo, his long-suffering dealer Kahnweiler, and his secretary-cum-factotum, Jaime Sabartès. The latter’s a character worthy of Kafka—a man who knows that the only thing worse than being inside Picasso’s world is standing on the outside begging to be let in.


Mini-Seldom Scene

Twin Peaks, directed by David Lynch, starring Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Lara Flynn Boyle, Joan Chen, Piper Laurie, Peggy Lipton.

Three things I learned:

  • That David Lynch will never again make another movie as weird as Eraserhead. Thank God.
  • That every great detective is a bit of a fruitcake.
  • How to really appreciate a cup of coffee, a piece of cherry pie, and a Douglas Fir tree.


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

I think I nailed this one.  Anthony Hopkins’ Picasso is not the definitive performance of this role.  I don’t deny that Hopkins’ physical resemblance to Picasso is uncanny, and readily admit that he succeeds brilliantly in capturing the artist’s charisma, charm, and petulance.  What’s missing is the full sense of Picasso’s power over the people in his orbit, and of the incredible creative drive that pushed him to work harder, over a longer period of time, than (perhaps) any other artist in history.  Picasso was a psychological vortex that pulled people into his orbit, held them there relentlessly, and cast them out whenever he felt the need for change.  The same iron strength of will that allowed him to weather the Nazi occupation of Paris operated when it came to dealing with wives, lovers, art dealers, and other artists.  He was also the quintessential trickster, provoking both joy and terror in equal measure.  Some of this can be seen in the quotes I’ve included below, taken from recent readings.  I’m wondering if Anthony Hopkins didn’t hold back in his performance in Surviving Picasso because he didn’t want to do a repeat of Hannibal Lecter.  Yet the fact is that Hannibal Lecter projects the essential amorality and sense of fear and attraction that perfectly suits Pablo Picasso.  If you think I’m exaggerating, consider the fact that his housekeeper Inez and secretary Sabartés served Picasso for his whole life despite the fact that he never paid either of them enough of a salary to raise them much above the poverty level.  As to the fate of the six women who acted as his principal muses and companions:

Dora Mar, gripped by depression and hysteria, was hospitalized for a long time after her breakup with Picasso.  Olga [Khokhlova] died, bereft and alone, in a clinic in 1955.  Marie-Thérèse Walter and Jacqueline Roque each took their own lives on October 19, 1977 and October 15, 1986, respectively.  Without being drawn into the image of the artist as a monster or ogre, a Bluebeard who devours his wives and children, the human toll of Picasso’s romances is high. The sentence, “artists should never marry,” finds its echo in the words of Picasso’s own mother, Doña Maria: “No woman could be happy with my son”…..   [from Laurence Madeline, “Picasso and Romantic Commitment,” included in Picasso: The Artist and His Muses]

Also from The Artist and His Muses:

Picasso’s relationships with the women in his life, especially the ones he was romantically involved with for a longer time, were formative for him.  They sparked a process of creation, eah new love setting free a novel canon of shapes and colours and allowing Picasso to redefine the laws of painting, mirroring his constant strive for renewal.

I wonder if James Ivory might have done better if he had been allowed to use Françoise Gilot’s memoir of her ten years with Picasso, Life With Picasso: The Love Story of a Decade, rather than having to fall back on Arianna Huffington’s Picasso: Creator and Destroyer.  Gilot has an amazing recall for conversations, encounters, and events; and as an artist in her own right and the only one of Picasso’s long-time lovers to leave him, her independent spirit lends credence to her writing.  Her book does full justice to both Picasso as genius and Picasso as chauvinist pig.  I admit that I’ve only scratched the surface of the immense library of books and monographs that have been written about Picasso, but everything that I have read seems to reinforce Gilot’s candid-but-never-bitter-or-petty account.  As much as I’ve always admired the cinematic work of James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Surviving Picasso is a pale reflection of Gilot’s book.  Some day, I hope to read John Richardson’s definitive four-volume biography of Picasso for a broader sense of his evolution as an artist.

More from Gilot:

When I went to live with Pablo, I thought that I could and should devote myself entirely to him, without expecting him to give me anything more than what he gave the world through his art….The children ruled our lives to a great extent then, and Pablo chafed at the weight of this domestic existence.  I could almost hear him grumble, “She must think she’s won the battle; she calls the shots now, with two children.  I am no more than a member of the family.  It is complete stability.”  And if there is anyone who was not made for stability, it was Pablo.

…he then went on the defensive by tossing off one of his favorite quips: “There nothing so similar to one poodle dog as another poodle dog and that goes for women, too.”  He was rather fond, also, of saying, “For me, there are only two kinds of women—goddesses and doormats.”  And whenever he thought I might be feeling too much like a goddess, he did his best to burn me into a doormat.

As I was growing up, whenever anything frightened me in any degree, it fascinated me at the same time.  I felt the need of going too far simply to prove to myself that I was capable of it.  And when I met Pablo, I knew that here was something larger than life, something to match myself against.  The prospect sometimes seemed overpowering, but fear itself can be a delicious sensation.  And so I had the feeling that even though the struggle between us was so disproportionate that I ran the risk of resounding failure, it was challenge that I could not turn down.

I don’t believe I could have made [my grandmother] understand that the question of age was the least of my concerns.  Pablo not only didn’t seem old to me; in some ways he seemed more youthful—mature but vigorous—than friends my own age.  But most of all, the fact that from the moment I knew him, I had seen that we spoke the same languages made the matter of age seem irrelevant.

Not only did [Pablo] hate dancing, but he considered it the most shameful of all possible pastimes.  For a man as uninhibited as he was, he had a curious puritanical streak in him when it came to dancing.  To sleep with a woman, any woman, any number of women, was perfectly all right.  But to dance with one was the last word in decadence.

Almost as soon as we got to Ménerbes Pablo began receiving daily letters from Marie-Thérèse, which he made it a point to read to me every morning in detail and with comments—invariably highly approving ones.  She always wrote in the most affectionate vein, and addressed him with great tenderness.  She gave him an account of each day, right down to its most personal detail, and there was much discussion of finances.  There was always news of Maya, their daughter, and sometimes snapshots of them both.

Pablo would read me some of the more ardent passages, sigh with satisfaction, and say, “Somehow I don’t see you writing me a letter like that.”  I told him I didn’t, either.

“it’s because you don’t love me enough,” he said.  “That woman really loves me.”  I told him we all had different ways of feeling and of expressing our feelings.

“You’re too immature to understand things like that,” he told me loftily.  “You’re not a fully developed woman, you know. You’re just a girl.”  He read me another passage to show me just how much of a woman Marie-Thérèse was.  Very nice, I said, and bit my lips to prevent myself from showing my anger.

[Georges Braque] realized how important it was, in all one’s relations with Pablo, to be constantly on guard, because life for Pablo was always a game one played with no holds barred.  When I first saw them together I realized that Braque was very fond of Pablo but that he didn’t trust him, knowing that Pablo was capable of any ruse or wile in order to come out on top.  His lowest tricks were reserved for those he liked best, and he never passed up an opportunity to play one if you gave him the chance.  And if you did give him the chance, he had no respect for you.  And so I learned very early that no matter how fond you might be of Pablo, the only way to keep his respect was to be prepared for the worst and take action before he did.

Pablo’s many stories and reminiscences about Olga and Marie-Thérèse and Dora Maar, as well as their continuing presence just offstage in our own life together, gradually made me realize that he had a kind of Bluebeard complex that made him want to cut off the heads of all the women he had collected in his little private museum.  But he didn’t cut the heads entirely off.  He preferred to have life go on and to have all those women who had shared his life at one moment or another still letting out little peeps and cries of joy or pain and making a few gestures like disjointed dolls, just to prove there was some life left in them, that it hung by a thread, and that he held the other end of the thread.  From time to time they would provide a humorous or dramatic or sometimes tragic side to things, and that was all grist to his mill.

I had seen how Pablo refused to throw away anything, even an old matchbox that had served its purpose.  Gradually I came to understand that he pursued the same policy with human beings.  Even though he no longer had any feeling for this one or that one, he could not bear the idea that any of his women should ever again have a life of her own.  And so each had to be maintained, with the minimum gift of himself, inside his orbit and not outside.

Movie Information

Genre: Biography | Drama
Director: James Ivory
Actors: Anthony Hopkins, Natascha McElhone, Julianne Moore, Joss Ackland, Peter Eyre, Joseph Maher, Diane Venora, Joan Plowright, Dominic West
Year: 1996
Original Review: November 2001


Holding On: Mission Impossible and the Myth of the Perfect Man

For the Bright Lights Film Journal, Vlad Dima looks back at the first six installments of the franchise that started back in 1996, focussing on the stylistic differences between the various directors, Ethan Hunt’s moral code, and the women (or scarcity of them) in Hunt’s life.  From the essay’s concluding paragraph:

“In the end, Ethan Hunt is the last man standing; not only on that rock [in Mission: Impossible – Fallout], but in the universe of action heroes. He is the perfect spy, with a perfect record of success and impeccable ethics; he is a smiling Messiah, Batman-like, better than Superman, and a one-woman man. He is the perfect man. And we love it. Too bad it’s all fake news.”

You Know These 20 Movies: Now Meet the Women Behind Them

The New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott present an overview of work by Anita Loos, Marion E. Wong, Dede Allen, Alice Guy Blaché, Barbara Loden, Leigh Brackett, Ida Lupino, Lotte Reiniger, Mary Blair, Edith Head, Sonya Levien, Kathleen Collins, Frances Flaherty, Shirley Clarke, Margaret Booth, Virginia Van Upp, Frances Marion, Vera Chytilova, Maya Deren, and Hannah Weinstein.

From the introduction:

“Women have been on the cinematic front lines from the start. While men took most of the credit for building the movie industry, women — on camera and off, in the executives suites and far from Hollywood — were busily, thrillingly, building it, too. That’s the reason for our list of Movie Women You Should Know, which is not a canon or a pantheon but a celebration and an invitation to further discovery. Here are some of the art’s other pioneers — its independents and entrepreneurs, auteurs and artisans.”

Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World

Ken Jacobs The Surging Sea of Humanity

Ken Jacobs “A Tom Tom Chaser” (2002)

Ken Jacobs – Flo Rounds a Corner (1999)

An Interview with Ken and Flo Jacobs!

Conversations with History: Ken Jacobs

In case you were wondering what avant-garde filmmakers have been up to while Hollywood conquers the world, here are some short films from America experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs, along with two interviews.  Way, way out there.  Warning: some stroboscopic sequences.

Films Worth Talking About:

Cable Guy, Crash, Some Mother’s Son, Mission: Impossible, Trees Lounge, Walking and Talking, Flirting With Disaster, Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Spitfire Grill, Jude, Secrets and Lies, Breaking the Waves, Extreme Measures, Evita, Lone Star, Independence Day, Twister, Eraser, The Rock, Trainspotting, The Nutty Professor, The First Wives Club, Tin Cup, Michael Collins, The Pillow Book, Fargo, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Craft, Emma, A Time to Kill, Striptease, Twelfth Night or What You Will, That Thing You Do!, Microcosmos: People of the Grass, The Whole Wide World, Ponette, Shall We Dance?, Alaska


The Bigger Picture

FilmsLe mystère Picasso (1956), Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)


Books:  Françose Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso; Ariana Huffington, Picasso: Creator and Destroyer; Katharina Beisiegel, ed., Picasso: The Artist and His Muses; John Richardson, The Life of Picasso (4 volumes); John Richardson, Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters; Lael Wertenbaker and the Editors of Time-Life Books, The World of Picasso 1881 – ; Ingo F. Walther, ed., Pablo Picasso 1881 – 1973


The Word on the Street

The movie and Hopkins’ performance are certainly successful in displaying Picasso’s human weaknesses; but there is a failure to adequately convey Picasso’s enormous creative power, a weakness compounded by the fact that the makers were not allowed to use much of his work in the film. I see the film as a well made, excellently acted, but partial (in both senses of the word) portrait of the artist. Its real focus is the women in his life, especially Francoise Gilot, and on the two-way exploitative nature of the relationship between a man of this kind and his mistresses/wives.   [Geofbob]

The movie is about Francoise Gilot, not about Picasso. It is not intended to tell Picasso’s story. Picasso was brilliant, spectacular, the living center of the world of art and a sexual magnet. Women wanted him and, king that he was, Picasso viewed their adoration as no more than his due.
     Francoise Gilot, a talented painter in her own right – but no Picasso – lives for ten years a life which for her is absolutely worth the pain. And when the pain is so grave that she will surely be overwhelmed, she stands up and leaves. The pain doesn’t go away instantly, but it does go away, in time.
     In one memorable scene, Gilot, at home with the baby, questions Picasso’s absences, his obvious womanizing. He tells her in no uncertain terms that he will do as he chooses, that his life outside their home is none of her business. She has no right to question him. He doesn’t say, “Take it or leave it,” but that is the unmistakable message. She takes it, for a few more years, and another child.
     It would be interesting to know whether Gilot, who was born in 1921 and is apparently still with us, harbors regret. I cannot imagine that she does. Of course she would have enjoyed that ten years better if Picasso had been able to love, in some recognizable way. But would she trade that life for one less magnificent? For one that would not be a good movie? Hardly.   [operamask]

Pablo Picasso portrayed by the only woman to have survived his narcissistic, manipulative, patronizing and womanizing tendencies and come out of the minotaur’s labyrinth, his studio, before he shatters her….I am a great admirer of Picasso myself and I really appreciated all the research to fit every detail in its place to make this kind of biographical film. I’m very fond of the relationship Picasso had with Henry Matisse despite their differences and the competitiveness between them.   [karl_consiglio]

Word to the wise:people interested in Picasso’s art -which is more interesting than his private life!who cares?- should try to see Henri-Georges Clouzot ‘s “le mystère Picasso” (1956):Unlike Ivory,Clouzot films the REAL Picasso while he is creating.He paints on a sheet of glass and we can follow every lick of paint.   [dbdumonteil]

To make a film about an artist which ignores the inner imagination, psychology, and creative aspect of that person is pointless and uninteresting. Anthony Hopkins offers a fairly convincing performance, but this just isn’t enough. For an artist biopic with more depth and substance I recommend Love Is The Devil (about painter Francis Bacon).   [Osbourneruddock]

If one is going to make a movie about an Icon, give us some
inspiration please….   [rbrb]

Francoise, the main character, thought herself strong enough to stave off any emotional harm he could do her, but when you get into a romantic relationship with someone, your reason disappears. Nobody’s strong enough to not be hurt by someone they are emotionally involved with.   [philipmorrison]