Driven to abstraction

Lack of tension and purpose kills Surviving Picasso

Of course, maybe that's how it really was; maybe as artists were feeling out the parameters of bohemianism, everything was sad and misty and somber. Maybe they weren't really as interested in expanding their artistic horizons and reinventing modern cultural iconography as they were in just getting laid. (Maybe those are the same thing.)

Director James Ivory and his longtime producer, Ismail Merchant, have garnered an honorable resume of starched but beautiful social commentaries--The Remains of the Day, Howards End, and A Room with a View are their best--but they seem restless here, as if they expect the purpose of the movie somehow to arise out of their filming it, rather than vice versa. You have to credit Ivory for attempting a fluid visual design for the film; many of the scenes are staged to look like paintings by Edward Hopper and others, and one unique sequence is a jaunty vision of abstract expressionism come to life--but they can't sustain the sense of playful creativity. At one point in the movie, Picasso tells Francoise, "Never sell yourself anything; you should never become a connoisseur of your own work." If Merchant-Ivory had heeded that advice, Surviving Picasso might have ended up with something resembling a finished product, and not a sketchy outline of true art, as unmoving yet full of potential as a blank canvas.

Surviving Picasso. Warner Bros./Merchant-Ivory. Anthony Hopkins, Natasha McElhone, Joan Plowright, Julianne Moore. Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, from the biography by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington. Directed by James Ivory. Now playing.

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