The Mystery of Picasso
dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot
Opens Fri March 2 at the Egyptian.

Most movies about artists gesture at the same ideas: the genius out of whack with the rest of the world, the self-destructive lifestyle, the cost of fame (if posthumous, so much the better). These sexy angles ignore the central fact of most artists' existence, which is the work itself. It's there, of course, haloed in glory (think of the Sistine Chapel, extracted from Michelangelo like a vital organ in The Agony and the Ecstasy, or even Ed Harris' lyrical painting scenes in the otherwise terrible Pollock), but it's never the point of the film.

But there is a perfect film about the artist, working, and it is The Mystery of Picasso (Le Mystère Picasso), made in 1956 by Picasso and the French director Henri-Georges Clouzot. Artist and director wanted to make an art documentary unlike any other in existence, and finally settled on a most ingenious idea: Picasso would work in ink on a semi-transparent surface, and Clouzot would film from the other side. The result is miraculous.

Picasso works quickly, and often Clouzot abandons real time for stop-action to keep things really moving along--one five-hour painting is condensed into 10 minutes. What you learn almost immediately is that you have to trust the artist. He works all over the frame, attending to some inner sense of balance; he tends to draw realistically first and then refract the forms through his cubist sensibility. At times he seems about to lose his grip on the work, but he almost always recovers. One of the last works in the film he deems "very, very bad," and he has to start over again, but I found the process entirely absorbing. The thrill is watching the artist who changed painting forever change his mind, correct himself, then change his mind again. The different versions of each work go past like an animated map of his thoughts.

It's widely known that all or most of the paintings created in service of this film were destroyed by the artist after the shoot, a reminder that Le Mystère Picasso is about process, not fame; about the act of painting, not the painting itself.