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'Picasso' by the Numbers

Movie review: Merchant Ivory's latest, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role, takes a conventional approach to filmmaking in its portrait of the iconoclastic legend.


As an artist and a personality, Pablo Picasso resembled the Hindu god Shiva, "the destroyer of worlds," intent on outraging orthodoxy and defying tradition whenever possible. So it's ironic and even amusing to watch as "Surviving Picasso" turns his life into a genteel, well-behaved, even conventional piece of filmmaking.

The responsible parties are director James Ivory, co-producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a trio that succeeded brilliantly in films like "A Room With a View" and "Howards End." But Paris in the decade between 1943 and 1953 is not the same as decorous Edwardian Britain, and homogenizing the era into a Merchant Ivory film is reminiscent of paving paradise and putting up a parking lot. "Surviving Picasso" is quite well made and easy enough to watch, but it's not noticeably challenging or involving.

Equally fascinating and frustrating is Anthony Hopkins' performance as the Spanish painter, introduced in his 62nd year making the best of the German occupation of Paris. With his intense look and bright white hair, Hopkins resembles Picasso to an uncanny extent. So much so, in fact, that it's unnerving to hear the actor's familiar British-accented voice coming out of Picasso's mouth, a reaction that emphasizes that his work here is more surface star turn than intensely felt performance.

Actually, Hopkins' presence, the way he brings a light, merry prankster quality to the painter, goes a ways toward softening what would otherwise be an off-putting portrayal of a classic sacred monster, an infantile child-man who "turns his friends into slaves" and behaves toward the passive and submissive women he prefers with an unrepentant and imperious chauvinism.

As its title indicates, however, "Surviving Picasso" splits its focuses between the artist and the woman who was his companion for that 10-year span, Francoise Gilot, charismatically played in her feature debut by British actress Natascha McElhone.

Francoise first caught the satyr's eye at a cafe, where he tried to win her over with practiced lines like "I painted your face before you were born." An artist herself, she visits Picasso in his atelier and flummoxes this veteran seducer with her sang-froid and self-possession.

A wealthy child of privilege whose father is determined to turn her into a lawyer, Gilot fights her attraction to Picasso because she fears "if I came too close to him, I knew my life would be totally changed." Even her sympathetic grandmother (Joan Plowright) weighs in with a shocked "who knows how many women he's destroyed?"


Though no body count is provided, "Surviving Picasso" introduces us to several of the artist's victims, starting with the neurotic Dora Maar (Julianne Moore), his mistress when Francoise meets him, who tells P.P., "you're like a bad taste in my mouth." Still around are an earlier mistress, the docile Marie-Therese Walter (Susannah Harker), and even an abandoned wife, a certifiably insane former dancer with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (Jane Lapotaire).

Regrettably, these one-note characters are too broadly done to be effective. And having everyone, even an uncomfortable Julianne Moore, speak English with a European accent seems like a convention that could have done with a little updating.

Also not convincing is the course of the Picasso-Gilot romantic relationship, which goes directly from the excitement of courtship to the misery of neglect without ever showing the couple as believably in love. Even the scenes of Picasso playing mind games with his dealers have more life in them.

Taken on her own, Gilot's character is the film's most plausible element. Brought to life by McElhone's enormous flashing eyes and a presence that practically glows, she is a woman whose ability to attract and fascinate a man old enough to be her grandfather with her personality alone is never in doubt.

But even here "Surviving Picasso" miscalculates its effects. So intent on making Gilot the artist's superior in every area from morals to manners, the filmmakers overdo her fine qualities to the point where we seem to be watching an infomercial for the impressive young woman.

In point of fact, the real-life Gilot, now 74 and living in New York, was, according to press reports, unhappy with the screenplay (which is based on Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington's 1988 biography). Her disapproval was apparently a factor in the estate's refusal to allow genuine Picassos into the film, which means that all the art, from paintings to pottery, are modern pastiches done in the great man's style.

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