Driven to abstraction

Lack of tension and purpose kills Surviving Picasso

In the opening scene of Surviving Picasso, set in Paris at the height of World War II, the great Spanish artist is showing his haphazard collection of paintings--his own as well as those of his friends, the Fauvist genius Henri Matisse and fellow cubist Georges Braque--to a pair of dimwitted Nazis. Picasso (Anthony Hopkins) is puckish, even obnoxious, in his condescending attitude about art and their obvious ignorance of it; he's correct, of course, but he's insufferable about being correct.

That scene, or others like it, gets repeated dozens of times throughout Surviving Picasso, but doesn't build toward anything identifiably dramatic, or even remotely interesting. The scenes seem strung together indiscriminately, as if seeing someone act abusively in a variety of contexts offers us some understanding of the inner workings of Picasso's mind. Unfortunately, the sum of the film's insights can be put this way: Powerful men, particularly artists, are bastards, yet women love them. That hasn't been a fresh idea since Citizen Kane used it. (Come to think of it, it was fairly stale even then.)

Surviving Picasso falters in its careless structure: It's gossipy and inconsequential at the precise moments it needs to be withering and wise. Who could the intended audience be? Not Picasso's fans, who will be disappointed by the absence of substantive discussion or exhibition of his work. His detractors will resent the deification of him through his art. And the uninitiated will learn nothing about him as a man or artist. The only viewers who might be satisfied by the film's choppy, nonsensical meanderings are those who enjoy waiting for the arrival of celebrities and quasicelebrities--many of whom became famous only through their relationship with Picasso--who appear with listless predetermination: Marie Therese, Picasso's notorious model and mistress; an aged Matisse (Joss Ackland), orchestrating the display of a mural as if attaching giant bathtub appliques; former lover Dora Maar (played by Julianne Moore, who appears at irregular intervals spouting off sloshy proverbs like the Lush at Delphi); and of course the putative heroine--the one who "survived" Picasso--Francoise Gilot (Natasha McElhone).

Francoise was Picasso's lover and muse throughout the '40s and early '50s, and bore him two children (including his daughter, Paloma). In the film's quasifeminist ethic, this makes her the real success story, the woman behind the man who can claim responsibility for his greatest accomplishments (even though he'd painted Guernica five years before he met Francoise). The point of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay seems to be--as suggested by the title--that Francoise is admirable for overcoming Picasso's suffocating fancy for her. Unlike his first wife, Olga (Jane LaPotaire), who went nearly insane with jealous rage, or Dora, whose own identity seemed to evaporate once he left her, Francoise emerged unscathed, even stronger for her endurance in the face of Picasso's emotional mistreatment. "He destroys women," Francoise's doing grandmother (Joan Plowright) cautions, but Francoise scoffs at the thought that Picasso can tame her. "Have you ever known me not to be myself?" she declares. But the evidence to that effect is spotty at best. After all, wasn't it Picasso who became tired with her and found another woman? Does walking out with barely a shred of dignity and not a penny to your name pass for heroism for Jhabvala?

The story might have had more resonance if McElhone weren't such a ceramic actress, bloodless but perfectly shaped. In some ways, Francoise does seem to endure, but only because McElhone's inexpressiveness keeps her close to the same static note throughout the film. What the film so desperately needs, and what it inexplicably lacks, is a performance that captures the manic furor to make a personality like Picasso compelling. Surviving Picasso should take us someplace inside him, exorcising his creative demons, but everything just touches the surface; he seems as superficial as Hopkins' excessively tactile interpretation. Picasso should be a great soul, or at least a tremendously engaging asshole, but the movie trivializes his genius; you sense that if he were alive today, he'd probably be a beach bum, hanging out with Jimmy Buffett and drinking pina coladas in Key West. Hopkins stalks his lines enthusiastically but not very convincingly; the faux realistic dialogue drops names and makes oblique references to fashionable fads so recklessly--Picasso purring to Francoise, "I'll take you to Lipp's and feed you sauerkraut," sticks out as just one egregious example--you feel like you're reading passages from an early draft of The Great Gatsby.

For some reason, classical bohemianism has never translated well onto film. There could hardly be a more exciting time and place to live than Paris between World War I and the 1950s. With a resource of residents (fascinating topics in themselves) including expatriate writers Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, jazz greats Charlie Parker and Lester Young, dancer Josephine Baker, and overall Renaissance men Jean Cocteau and Jean Renoir--even French new-wave filmmakers like Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and others--it would seem to require a concerted effort to make the era dreary. And yet in film after film, spending time in Paris seems to be a sure ticket to emotional and artistic paralysis. Henry & June, 'Round Midnight, and Bird all have great subject matter--and often memorable performances--but the tone of these movies, as well as Surviving Picasso, is all wrong. The reign of the Lost Generation doesn't have a hip swing to it, but instead seems as serious, dour, and banal as an episode of Melrose Place, without, alas, the hair-flinging and bikini tops. (Two spoofs of the era, The Moderns and Victor/Victoria, are far more successful entertainments.)

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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