Mystery of Picasso, The (1956): Clouzot’s Brilliant, Exciting Portrait of the Genius Artist

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s astonishing portrait of the legendary painter Pablo Picasso, The Mystery of Picasso, plays at the estimable Film Forum in New York, in a new 4K DCP restoration.

Winner of a special jury prize at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, The Mystery of Picasso represented a major departure for Clouzot, who was known primarily for his mastery of the noir thriller (Le Corbeau, The Wages of Fear, Diabolique).

“To be able to understand a painter’s mind, one need only follow his hand.”

A white screen. And then lines, points, shades almost magically appear, sometimes in real time, with the squeak of each brushstroke resonating; sometimes in seemingly continuous animation, or dramatically appearing whole in stages, to Georges Auric’s festively thunderous music.
Pablo Picasso works, drawing in inks and oils on semi-transparent materials, while Clouzot’s camera observes the results from behind.
Twenty works resulted from the hand of the master (all reportedly consigned to the flames afterwards), allowing us to understand the mind, the art, and the craft of the most influential artist of the 20th century.

It is regarded today as one of cinema’s greatest art documentaries but failed initially to wow American audiences or critics.

At the time of its U.S. release, the middlebrow critic Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times that it “rates better as light entertainment than as a serious art film.”
After falling out of circulation for over 20 years, its revival at Cannes in 1982 garnered new appreciation.
In 1984, the French government declared the film a “national treasure.” As a result, the feature itself, just like a work of art itself, has continued to intrigue the international art and film communities.
Director Clouzot had the best first and last word, when he told the genius painter: When we are all dead, you and me and everyone, the film will still continue to be projected.”