For those who don't already know that Pablo Picasso was a great artist and a cruel son of a bitch, filmdom's beacons of good taste, Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala, now step forward, shoes all shined, to oh-so-gently kick him in the derriere.
In Surviving Picasso, they have once again chosen the all-purpose actor Anthony Hopkins as their star, and if you thought Oliver Stone miscast the gifted Welshman as Richard Nixon, wait till you get a load of him in his cockeyed beret, tooting a bugle on Bastille Day in the south of France. Famished Hannibal Lecter and what's-his-name the butler would hardly recognize this displaced Hopkins; any Cubist worth his cubes would be equally baffled by this Anglified Pablo.
For better or worse, the film's narrator is the young Paris art student Françoise Gilot (pretty--and pretty weak--Natascha McElhone), just one of many beauties, this one circa the 1940s, dazzled by Picasso's practiced charms, imprisoned by his greatness and undone by his demands. The biographical record is rife with such lore. This rather bloodless, theoretical film simply recapitulates, then tosses in some fetching oddities: For instance, Picasso kept all his hair and toenail clippings, lest they be used as hexes against him; he played dealers clamoring for his work like violins; he demanded higher prices than his old pal Matisse.
But Surviving Picasso isn't about art, or even about a great artist's great conflicts. It's about a vain, horny old Spaniard who couldn't keep his penis in his pantalones. But even that gets the decorous Merchant-Ivory gloss: For a guy with three or four wives and God knows how many mistresses hidden away in the various arrondissements of Paris, a guy, Francoise laments, who "surrounds" her "like an element," he seems curiously lacking in sheer life force up there on the screen.
Do Hopkins and the film convince us of the man's overwhelming magnetism? Hardly. Despite showing us a couple dozen great paintings, asking Big Tony to strut robustly across the screen whenever possible and spout all manner of artistic cant ("Painting is stronger than I am--it makes me do what it wants!"), Hopkins's Picasso is six parts cheap, lying fury for every part irresistible genius or tireless cocksman--hardly the kind of ratio that keeps les jeunes filles hanging around the old studio with their smocks down around their ankles.
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Meanwhile, the press notes and publicity mill are understandably mum about the movie's own historical origins. They lie, it turns out, in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's adaptation of Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, a bio written, oddly enough, by the right-wing ideologue Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington. A famously ambitious manipulator herself, in 1994 she spent a great deal of her bland husband Michael's inheritance trying (and failing) to install him in the U.S. Senate from the state of California. Before becoming gun dog for conservatism's lunatic fringe, though, Ms. Huffington was reputedly a bit of an art hound. But how her muddled, mediocre book about Picasso and his women--among the dozens of works available, including Francoise Gilot's own memoirs--became the basis for this film is anybody's guess. It's probably no coincidence that Warner Bros. does its business in Michael Huffington's home state.
In the end, a lesson: Foolish but plucky Francoise struggles to survive Picasso; we struggle to stay awake; Anthony Hopkins struggles free of his employers. To wit: He recently told interviewers that Merchant and Ivory are not only tasteful, but tight. "They'd steal the stripes off your socks," Hopkins averred. Thus do art and commerce once more part company, 23 years after Picasso's demise.
Surviving Picasso. Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Directed by James Ivory. With Anthony Hopkins, Natascha McElhone, Dominic West and Susannah Harker.