Mystery Within The Mystery: Le Mystère
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/30/06
Legend has it that upon completion of the film, Le Mystère Picasso, Pablo Picasso destroyed the nearly two dozen works he created in the film. What has transpired of this story would have made a nice appendage for Orson Welles’ brilliant 1974 film essay, F for Fake. Peggy Parsons of the National Gallery of Art denies that the works were destroyed and claims to have seen several of the paintings herself. While some believe that the paintings were burned in an alley near the film’s location, others refute this by saying that Picasso would have been more meticulous in his disposal of the pieces and would have done it out of possible public eye. Then there is the claim that evidence, on film, exists documenting the alley burning. In 1994 I spoke with two sources that asserted they had first hand knowledge of the footage. The first, a gentleman from Tennessee, said he had seen the footage when he was much younger. The details he gave were that the clip of the burning was a mere seven seconds long and while the man in the film was probably Picasso, it was difficult to determine what he was burning much less whether they were paintings from the film or not. He could tell me nothing more including where he would have seen it. I found my second source in Sweden who boasted that he possessed the video of that footage. Without prompting, he backed up what I had heard from the man from Tennessee; the film was seven seconds long and, while he thought it was works from the film being destroyed, it would be difficult to prove. He believed the alley scene was filmed by director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and director of photography, Claude Renoir, for a possible ending to the documentary. When I inquired about my being able to purchase a copy of the material, he was eager to sell. The price he quoted, however, was equivalent to that of the yearly salary of a general in a third world country. When I told him that proof would be necessary and asked for a still of the scene, that was when the communication with my new friend in Sweden abruptly ended.
I don’t know if it’s possible to have a film like Le Mystère Picasso without the emergence of ripe myths. It is a documentary that is as rare as a documentary can be. As a historic document, it is priceless. It’s very simple: we watch while Picasso creates. Le Mystère Picasso (1956) succeeds in doing something that most documentaries do not; no matter how many times you view this film, you will learn and see something new each time.
The movie opens with Picasso making a simple drawing while a narrator wonders what must have been going through Rimbaud’s head as he wrote The Drunken Boat. He implies that it is easier to get into the mind of a painter than that of a writer or composer,
“To be able to understand a painter’s mind one need only follow his hand.”
I would disagree with this. In order to know what was in Rimbaud’s mind, one need only to read the words. With an artist like Picasso, watching him create will give you no further insight to his mind or process. There is a reason that this film was named what it was. Few artists wear the shroud of mystery as well as Pablo Picasso. Also, the idea of following the artist’s hand does not apply in this film. We very rarely see Picasso actually do the work. A special screen was created so Picasso could create with markers on one side and the image would be captured by the camera on the other side. Only in two pieces do we actually see Picasso put his hand to the “canvas”. For the most part we do not see facial expressions. We do not have an invitation to view his body language. We do not see the process unfold in his eyes.
To add another layer to the myth of the film, it has been suggested that at least one the works was not painted by Picasso at all. Clouzot or someone else may have done one of the pieces (after all, we do not see who is using the marker most of the time). It could be anyone behind that screen. While I view this suggestion as absurd, Picasso was, none the less, never above Elmyr De Hory-type trickery. In the end, it’s just another story, another mystery.
Despite what a captivating and superb documentary this is, the film is still rife with problems. After all, how could a film attempting to capture Picasso be without problems? It’s easy to question the staging of exposition here. How many people would rather have had the camera look over the shoulder of Picasso as he sat in front of a canvas with a brush in his studio? All too often the scene does not seem natural enough (or at all). The brief snippets of dialogue, too, come across as scripted; especially when a secondary camera unit captures the action of Picasso trying to finish a piece while the seconds, before the primary camera runs out of film, are being counted down for him. It only adds to making one question how natural this could have been for Picasso’s flow. In the midst of all this one must also question Picasso’s level of inspiration. He does come across as confident and relaxed; at least in those brief moments when we actually see him. At one point he is asked what he’s going to paint. He answers, “It’s not important” then promises a surprise. What we get is a decorative fish that evolves into a rooster and then, finally, into a black cat – right before our eyes.
The biggest problem with filming Pablo Picasso, albeit unavoidable, is a matter of time. We see most of the works created with time-lapsed photography (more to the point, a rapid slideshow). This gives less of a view of his creative process. We don’t even see every line drawn. We cannot see those moments when nothing comes for a period and this, added to our inability to see him, threatens to eliminate the purpose of the film. But there is no other way to present the creation of these pieces any other way unless we’re willing to sit through a film longer than Berlin Alexanderplatz. Clouzot understood this problem and worries on film (again sounding scripted) that the time-lapse will make the audience think that Picasso completed the piece in ten minutes. When Picasso asks how long it actually took the answer comes, “Five hours”.
The time-lapse also dictated that the soundtrack needed music to go along with the “slideshow”. Early in the film all we hear is the noise the markers make on the screen and the sound of Picasso moving inks around. This is a more natural and far superior sound than when the music comes in and the soundtrack becomes a distraction for some time. The simple sounds of Picasso working added a very concrete reality to the proceedings.
Despite the difficulty inherent in a project like this, it is still remarkable to watch. You don’t even have to like Picasso to enjoy this film. In fact, it’s probably a better film if you are not an admirer of his. After multiple viewings, the paintings always come across as new and fresh as if they were being produced for the first time. The small moments are to be valued as much as the larger ones; it is enough to see a shirtless Picasso mixing his inks. I still talk out loud watching this documentary. I see a piece and declare it finished only to discover that Picasso is far from finished and taking it in an entirely different direction than one could imagine. All too often I have shouted out for him to “Stop. It’s done. You’ll ruin it.” In the end you have to be satisfied with the knowledge that Picasso creates a better Picasso than you do.
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