When dealing with artists, be they musicians or writers, it can be difficult to understand their thought processes simply by taking in their work, but with painters it's all there to be seen, for every daub on the canvas speaks to the viewer, assuming the work is good enough. That's the idea of director Henri-Georges Clouzot, at least, and to prove it he is going to break down the techniques of possibly the greatest artist of the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso, who has agreed to finally be filmed making his creations. The style will be simple: the audience watches a selection of paintings being applied to a canvas, specially designed for the camera to pick up every stroke, and with that observation will come insight...
Or maybe not, as you could argue Picasso kept as much mystery at the end of the film as he did at the beginning, for we never got that insight as to how he conjured up his ideas, and what his motives for arranging his work were in that particular way. The gimmick in this was Picasso had only complied with the great French director on the understanding that whatever he painted would be destroyed after the shoot, which made what was depicted all the more precious, though there is some dispute about this as some claim it was a hook dreamt up to bring in the punters, and the artworks still exist. Picasso was so prolific that it must be difficult to pin down the truth of that story anyway.
There was a certain degree of self-aggrandising, both for the subject and the director, that could be drawn from the film, as the seventy-five year old artist had finally allowed the cameras in for a momentous series of creations, yet as it played out there was little of the pomposity you might have anticipated, sure, the sense that this was an important event was present, but otherwise it had an intimate, playful air. This was especially apparent in the scenes where, as the pictures developed, you began to get concerned that Picasso was overthinking his creations, and the simplicity that was so appealing in what were largely sketches at some stage was going to be lost as he scribbled swathes of ink over the image.
It's accurate to say not every one of those images was a masterpiece, many critics might have it that none of them were and Picasso had held back from cutting loose and allowing his imagination to let fly. There were subjects that you felt did not see the artist was pressing himself to do something new, though you could also argue that if you want to see Picasso at work, you wanted to see the hits, and that is what was on offer here. His romanticising of matadors and bullfighting may not be too palatable now, but there were other sections, the majority in fact, where he took more traditional figure studies or landscapes as his focus, and these were extremely pleasing to watch unfold, Clouzot having devised a method where Picasso drew on one side of a screen, and the cameraman (Claude Renoir, no less) captured the results on the other.
It was easier to see than describe, and there was a middle section where a little chat was indulged in as Picasso painted against the clock, creating a fish that transforms into a chicken, then a crude human face, making meaningful the way we had seen three pictures pass before our eyes that would never be seen again unless we ran this film. The artist, dressed in shorts and sandals and nothing else, looking very Mediterranean in his spry old geezer appearance, was clearly enjoying himself, and that joy in manufacture was infectious, not least because this was a very relaxing experience, the pleasure of seeing art developed in all its purity a very soothing manner of spending an hour and a quarter. The final piece was a lovely-looking beach scene with figures accompanying it that shifts and changes under Picasso's brush to look completely different at the end than it did at the start, bits added all the time, indicating he fully understood the possibilities the moving image could lend his approach. It may not sound like much, but it was a satisfying piece to be lost in. Music, jazzy and folky in turns, by George Auric.
French director, responsible for some now classic thrillers. Originally a screenwriter, Clouzot's debut film was L'Assassin Habite Au 21 in 1942, which he followed by the controversial The Raven. Its harsh portrayal of small-town France was considered unpatriotic, and Clouzot was barred from working in France for five years.
Clouzot returned with the thriller Jenny Lamour and powerful Manon, before 1953's brilliant white-knuckle-ride The Wages of Fear became a big international success. Les Diaboliques, two years later, proved even more popular, and is still considered one of the greatest psychological thrillers ever made. Inevitably Clouzot's subsequent work paled in comparison to these masterpieces, and ill-health dogged the director throughout the rest of his career. However, the likes of The Spies, The Truth (with Brigitte Bardot) and his final film La Prisonnière remain distinctive, often disturbing movies.