Suspense master Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso, now playing at Film Forum in a beautiful 4K restoration from Milestone, is one of the most thrilling films ever made about art and the creative process. In the 1949 short Visit to Picasso, Belgian director Paul Haesaerts photographed Pablo Picasso painting on a glass plate. Picasso and his longtime friend Clouzot take that basic concept to the next level in The Mystery of Picasso, in which the Spanish artist uses inks that bleed through paper so Clouzot can shoot him from the other side; the works unfold like magic, evolving on camera seemingly without the genius present. “We’d give anything to have been in Rimbaud’s mind while he was writing ‘Le Bateau Ivre,’ or in Mozart’s while he was composing the Jupiter Symphony, to discover this secret mechanism that guides the creator in a perilous adventure,” Clouzot says at the beginning. “Thanks to God, what is impossible in poetry and music is attainable in painting. To find out what goes on in a painter’s head, you need to follow his hand. A painter’s adventure is an odd one!” It’s breathtaking as the pictures emerge, revealing Picasso’s remarkable command of line, altering images as he pleases with just a brushstroke or two.
Most of the works are accompanied by glorious music by composer Georges Auric, ranging from bold fanfares and classical lilts to jazzy riffs. (Several drawings have no music so the sounds of Picasso’s brushstrokes can be heard, a score unto itself.) Picasso is seen several times in the film, which is in black-and-white except for the colors in the paintings: Before the credits, he paints at an easel, closely examining the work with penetrating wide eyes; a moment later, he appears in a cloud of smoke (from his cigarette); in the middle, shirtless, he shows off his impressive seventy-five-year-old physique, battling the clock as Clouzot announces that a reel is running out, another camera revealing the basic method employed by Clouzot and cinematographer Claude Renoir, the nephew of filmmaker Jean Renoir and grandson of Impressionist master Auguste Renoir; and, at the end, Picasso boldly signs the film, which was shot over three months in the summer at Studios de la Victorine in Nice. (Among those stopping by to check out the progress were Jean Cocteau, Jacques Prévert, and Luis Buñuel.) At another point Picasso decides that he wants to switch from ink on paper to oil on canvas.
“I haven’t gone below the surface yet. We should go deeper. Risk all. Try to see one picture turning onto another,” he says as Clouzot (The Wages of Fear, Les Diaboliques) and Renoir (The Golden Coach, The Spy Who Loved Me) change to CinemaScope. The result is La Plage de la Garoupe, which was shot over eight days using a stop-motion technique so editor Henri Colpi could remove Picasso from the scene, since he had to make it the traditional way, in front of the canvas. All of the works were supposed to be destroyed once the film was completed, but it is rumored that a few still exist. Colpi wrote in Letters to a Young Editor that Picasso had kept many of the drawings but they were damaged in an accident involving his cat. In the final shot, Centaur, a sculpture Picasso made from such studio materials as a lens box, a light stanchion, an easel, and boxes, can be seen in the background; it is currently in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Mystery of Picasso might not contain the artist’s finest works, it can feel repetitive even at seventy-five minutes, and it’s not all quite as spontaneous as it seems, but it offers a captivating look inside the mind of one of the most important and distinguished artists of the twentieth century.