The Mystery of Picasso

When French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear, Diabolique) asked his pal Pablo Picasso to collaborate on a film with him, the result was this one-of-a-kind 1956 documentary of an artist at work. Shot through a semitransparent panel with Picasso on one side and Clouzot and his cameraman on the other, the screen becomes a white canvas and we watch as, in 75 minutes, the artist creates some 20 pictures — sometimes stroke-by-stroke, sometimes via time-lapse photography. The latter is most effective when we learn that a painting which seems to have taken a thoughtful five minutes to create actually took five hours.

The fascination of the film lies in the impression it gives of watching Picasso think — the way an initial concept is often quickly set forward then carefully embroidered, structurally elaborated, spatially negated, changed. At one point he draws what looks like a rooster which becomes a fish which, with a lavish slathering of blue against black, becomes some kind of frightening mask. Sometimes a startling effect is achieved by taking away detail or by abstracting a familiar cubist trope (like his signature split-face-forward profiles). And sometimes when a picture seems to have reached some perfect balance of detail, Picasso will go ahead and ruin it by adding more filigree.

But that’s the interactive nature of the film — you not only get to watch a great artist work, but you can argue with some of his choices, just as he seems to argue with them now and then. And since most of the works were destroyed after the movie was made, the celluloid survives as an original Picasso, declared a national treasure by the French government in 1984. It is, in a sense, the ultimate art film.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].

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