Surviving Picasso
Director: James Ivory. Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Natascha McElhone, Julianne Moore, Diane Venora, Jane Lapotaire, Joss Ackland, Susannah Harker, Joan Plowright. Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (based on the book Picasso: Creator and Destroyer by Arianna Huffington).


Anthony Hopkins had apparently not gotten his fill of playing corrupt, willful icons of the 20th century from his role in Nixon, and so appears here as the self-described "Minotaur" of modern art. As the title implies, however, this Merchant Ivory picture is not so much a study of Picasso as an exposé of the difficulties of living with him, and thus takes as its central character Françoise Gilot, Picasso's mistress for 10 years who eventually left him and his consistent, diverse forms of abuse. Then again, is that what Surviving Picasso is really about? When the lights come up, do we feel comfortable ascribing any particular intent or coherence to this erratic, crazily unfocuseed work? Picasso confronts more bullish, overtly-stated emotions than the Merchant-Ivory team generally prefers, but ambition notwithstanding, the movie fails prodigiously, mostly out of its own confusion over who it is about and what it wants to say.

Natascha McElhone, making her screen debut, frequently narrates the film's events in voice-over, a surprising gesture of narrative agency considering how silent and passive she was always made in her relations with Picassso. Early in the film, we see her and a companion visit Picasso's studio, where he immediately responds to both of the girls' beauty—not that such attention distinguishes them from a whole host of other women, as the movie goes on to document—and his relationship with Françoise takes its earliest form (although sexual tension exists from the outset) as an essentially teacher-student relationship.

What does make Françoise unique, the film would have us believe, is her own artistic promise, though a signal mistake of Surviving Picasso is its general indifference to displaying her artwork or getting inside her own artistic sensibility. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who won Academy Awards for her Merchant Ivory adaptations of A Room with a View and Howards End, admittedly has flimsier source material from which to work here ; denied by the Gilot estate any access to Françoise's memoirs, and similarly spurned by Picasso's lineage, the project turned to Arianna Huffington's flat woman-in-peril portrait of Françoise in Picasso: Creator and Destroyer. The problem is not just that Françoise bears the signs of an interesting personality restricted here to stock victimhood; the darker implication is that by looking at Françoise only as Picasso's mistreated lover, the film is not any more interested in Françoise as an autonomous, independent, and spirited separate entity than Picasso was. We, like him, only see her as an accessory to a famous man who unfortunately cared little for her.

Meanwhile, the film is elsewhere crippled by the Picasso family's refusal to donate any original Picasso work. With his art for the most part kept off-screen, Picasso's own reasons for notoriety become disconcertingly uncompelling, and Hopkins has no route left to him than to play an uninteresting sexist, a pig whose redeeming value to the rest of the world—and, of course, to Françoise—vanishes entirely from the film's perspective. Surviving Picasso, then, becomes the "story" of a woman it doesn't examine outside of her relationship to a man whom it is not at liberty to fully portray. This is not a recipe for gripping drama, and one wonders why the filmmakers didn't have the gumption or the good grace to bow out of the project.

Thank goodness, though, for the supporting players, including Julianne Moore and Diane Venora, two of Hollywood's most fascinating character actresses, as other loves of Picasso. Moore in particular, as the fiery Dora Maar, suggests the sexual and personal charisma of the artist through her fierce delivery of Dora's venomous but still besotted testimonies. "Without him there is nothing," she warns Françoise, clearly aware that the young woman will be as trampled as she by Picasso's cruel manipulations and galloping libido. McElhone, for her part, is a striking actress but a fairly uninflected one, which particularly damages her effectiveness in the voice-over passages. Even Hopkins cannot salvage the picture, which would have done better to hire a less consummate actor with more obvious sexual dynamism; too bad Anthony Quinn is too old.

I'm not sure if Surviving Picasso's flaccidity is more interesting or more disappointing for the fact that the team behind it are all so clearly capable of better work. One's jaw simply drops during scenes like Picasso's creation of Guernica, laughably staged with the camera behind the canvas while Dora Maar and the painter's ex-mistress Marie-Thérèse catfight like roller-derby queens; the moment plays like something out of Russ Meyer. Richard Robbins' score is a virtual replay of his work in The Remains of the Day, material to which its quietly rolling glissandoes were much better suited, and a dream sequence that opens up in the middle of the movie falls utterly flat. These shocking ineptitudes and lapses in taste, not to mention the film's overarching false-consciousness in seeming to valorize Françoise when in fact it pushes her further into the margins, make the film worse than a noble failure. Rent Howards End, or anything else starring Moore or Venora, or go check out Lust for Life. Surviving Picasso deserves to pass away quietly. D+


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