LIKE THE WIVES of Henry VIII, often summed up by the rhyme "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived," Picasso's women could also be distinguished by their destinies after hooking up with the famously misogynistic artist. But the fates of his five longtime mistresses and two wives don't exactly roll off the tongue: survived, died, went crazy, suicide, nervous breakdown, survived, suicide.
Surviving Picasso, the latest film from the Ismail Merchant/James Ivory team, of course focuses on a survivor--Françoise Gilot. She was also a prime source for the juicy biography on which the film is based, Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, which detailed how the artist bedded scores of women, psychologically manipulated and/or abused them, and was at best an on-again/off-again father to his children. That Picasso behaved monstrously is no news (after all, he saw himself as a minotaur); indeed, it seems so obvious at this point as to hardly be worth stating, let alone making a movie about it. No wonder that after the screening, I heard a woman in the bathroom sum up the film to her companion--"Wasn't that pretty?"--before they began discussing Picasso's boat-neck shirts.
Therein lies the trouble: Merchant-Ivory films are too nice--too pretty--for monsters like Picasso. So what do we get instead? Well, there are lots of crowd scenes, as well as the flawless period detail that's become the M-I trademark (gotta spend those big budgets somehow). The film opens in Nazi-occupied Paris with troops of German soldiers marching through the streets, and later, the Parisians jubilantly welcome Jeeps brimming with American G.I.s. Characters sweeping through the boho-chic brasseries and bistros are dressed to the nines; for lack of anything else to be interested in, I found myself, not unlike those women in the bathroom, noting (and coveting) all the authentic clothing, especially Picasso's many lovely neckerchiefs.
It's in one of these bistros, in 1943, that 62-year-old Picasso first meets Françoise and her friend Geneviéve. Dora Maar, his most recent mistress, looks on smolderingly as he goes through the routine of inviting the sweet young things to come see his work. After a few visits, he offers Françoise a studio at his place if she'll live as his "captive." "I'd like to be alone and paint all day. I wouldn't mind losing my liberty for that," she responds rather preposterously. Françoise stayed ten years, had two children with him, and was the only woman to leave Picasso. I'd relate more of the plot here, but Surviving Picasso does such a good job of (over)stating the (painfully) obvious that it would seem doubly redundant. "You are so young, and he is so old!" observes Françoise's grandmother; and later, "Oh my dear, how your husband has made you suffer!"
Worse is the tendency to have Françoise, in voiceover narration, announce exactly what will occur in the forthcoming scene. For instance, she warns us that her bourgeois, domineering father is darn near crazy--could fly into a rage if she dares contradict him--just before Françoise the character announces her intention to become a painter. Sure enough, we soon see him bashing her head against a staircase. Later she narrates how her wealthy grandmother moved to the South of France to keep an eye on her and the kids and support them financially, because Picasso never gave her any money. "I know he doesn't give you anything," says the wily grandma (played by M-I stalwart Joan Plowright), handing her casino winnings to Françoise. In spelling out so clearly its agenda (P-i-c-a-s-s-o was a m-o-n-s-t-e-r) the film comes off like one of those grade-B documentaries enhanced with "dramatic reenactments" (indeed, it was co-produced with David Wolper, maker of countless biographical documentaries).
Perhaps Merchant-Ivory were aware of the film's snooze factor, because they try to spice things up with a catfight between Dora Maar and another mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter (which Picasso observes from on high while painting Guernica); and two inexplicably incongruous fantasy scenes played out on Cubist- and Expressionist-style theatrical sets. One might expect the estimable Anthony Hopkins to pitch in a rip-roaring portrait of an artist reveling in his own minotaur-myth, but I found him curiously lackluster. Maybe it's my bias against legendary actors playing legendary historical figures: When Hopkins plays Nixon, you don't see Nixon, you see Hopkins-as-Nixon, and the same thing happens here. Plus, the hangover tics from his infamous Hannibal Lecter role--all those wacky, semi-menacing facial expressions--are becoming a schtick. Natascha McElhone is appropriately beautiful as Gilot, but her acting leaves much to be desired, especially in the face of Julianne Moore, who invests Dora Maar with all the catty drama (and a wicked accent) she deserves. In the end, the question is not whether you'll survive Surviving Picasso, but whether you won't just sleep right through it.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.