At first glance, it might seem that a film about Picasso should have been directed by anyone other than Henri-Georges Clouzot, the famous misanthrope of the cinema. But then again, both were hard, violent men, absolutely sure of their vocations, and each approached their work with the same sense of absolute control and complete lack of compromise; whatever they did, it was entirely up to them, and anyone who interfered would be cut down in short order.

For Picasso, this was not the first cinematic exploration of his creative process; in 1949, the Belgian filmmaker Paul Haesaerts made Bezoek aan Picasso (Visit to Picasso), a 21-minute film in which Picasso creates, as he does in Clouzot’s film, a number of drawings, painting on see-through glass, which the director films from the other side, to allow the viewer to see both the painting and the artist at work, at the same time.

Bezoek aan Picasso was shot in black-and-white, and even though it was nominated for Best Documentary Film at the 1952 BAFTA Awards, it has faded into relative obscurity, although clips of the film, and even the entire short, can be found on the web. Nevertheless, Bezoek aan Picasso had a wide circulation, and given the fact that Le Mystère Picasso (1956) employs precisely the same technique for much of its running time – painting on transparent glass, while the camera films from the other side – it would seem that Haesaerts’ work had some influence on Clouzot’s much more ambitious film.

Picasso, for his part, never shied away from the spotlight, or the role of being, in the eyes of many observers, the foremost visual artist of the first half of the 20th century. Picasso’s colleague and sometime friend – they really would more accurately be called “frenemies” – Jean Cocteau was also a relentless self-publicist, but Cocteau’s style was much more direct, whereas Picasso liked to cloak himself in a mantle of inaccessible inscrutability, even as he created an incredible amount of work without interruption for almost his entire, long lifetime.

Obstinately remaining in Paris during World War II, even as the Nazis took control of the city, Picasso projected such an air of unassailability that the Vichy government and Nazi officials pretty much left him alone, and the artist continued to work in his studio, knocking out roughly a canvas a day, until the liberation.

Indeed, Picasso always reminds me inescapably of Andy Warhol, who was similarly prolific, and who produced an enormous amount of work in a relatively short space of time. Picasso’s career, of course, was much longer, but like Warhol, his early work of the 1910s and 1920s offered both novelty and controversy, and it was only as the 1940s dawned that he began to gain the degree of international respect that he still commands today. Relentlessly macho, Picasso even in late middle age still painted with speed and efficiency, approaching his canvases like a prizefighter, as if the material at hand was to be dominated and tamed, rather than drawn out and gently transposed from nature.

Often painting bare-chested in the film, casually smoking and drinking as he works with Hemingwayesque brusqueness and economy, Picasso is also well aware of his role as the creator of his own mythos. It is significant that one of his last acts in the film is to simply scrawl his name on a large canvas and then underline it, as if to signify to even the most dense observer that he is, above all, his own man in every sense, and a living legend. Picasso is also well aware of the camera’s presence, and of what Clouzot is doing for him; immortalising him in the act of creation, inviting the viewer into his studio for a personal one-on-one meeting through the medium of the cinema.

Picasso could be harsh, unpleasant, dictatorial and ruthless, but those are the same characteristics that one could easily use to describe Clouzot. So perhaps it isn’t such a strange collaboration after all; although for each, individualism was such an inextricable part of their existence, that it’s hard to imagine either man compliantly going along with the other’s wishes.

But in the final analysis, Le Mystère Picasso isn’t really a collaboration at all, but rather Clouzot acting as the documentarian of whatever it is that Picasso creates. No one told Picasso what to do, or how to do it; the “glass plate” technique having been established, Clouzot seems to have left Picasso alone with his muse, watching the creative process as an interested bystander, which is precisely what he was.

Working with Director of Photography Claude Renoir, and composer Georges Auric, Clouzot builds Le Mystère Picasso from simple black-and-white drawings, shot in high contrast black-and-white, created in a self-consciously staged environment enveloped almost entirely in darkness, to highly sophisticated, complex, colourful creations by the end of the film (which is a compact 74 minutes and 45 seconds from start to finish). The early drawings are fanciful, almost poetic; the later paintings become simultaneously more violent, sexual and confrontational. Initially, the drawings appear as if by magic, with no human agency present; first the outlines, and then copious details. At first, Auric’s music is absent, and we hear only the sound of Picasso’s brushstrokes on the soundtrack.

Gradually, colour is introduced, and with it, Auric’s signature romantic music, as Picasso paints a series of still lifes and action scenes, intercut with shots of Clouzot and Renoir photographing the images that Picasso creates, taking us behind the scenes of the production process of the film. Everyone seems to be having a marvelous time, and no wonder; the real mystery of Picasso, of course, is the fact that he seems effortlessly able to pull one wondrous image after another out of his imagination, almost without hesitation. The production of the film is really a matter of documenting the prodigious output of a master at the height of his powers.

There is, however, a mordant postscript to the film; all of the works that Picasso created for Le Mystère Picasso were destroyed almost as soon as they were created, and so they have a phantom existence, living on solely through Clouzot’s film rather than having any actual agency of their own. This is a modern, somewhat nihilistic coda to the film’s creation, but it also ensured the ineluctable value of the film itself, making it, and Picasso’s works within it, equally irreplaceable.

This shrewd manoeuvre ensured that Le Mystère Picasso would enjoy a celebrity akin to that of Picasso’s works themselves, and raised Clouzot’s participation in the film from strict documentarian to co-creator. In response, the French government quickly recognised the film’s unique value, and took over responsibility for the preservation of the film’s negative, and declared it to be a “national treasure” soon after. The film also won the 1956 Special Jury Prize Unanimité at the Cannes Film Festival.

At once a film about Picasso, the act of creation, and the filmic process itself, Le Mystère Picasso is a one of a kind document from two deeply iconoclastic individuals; an interesting side trip from Clouzot’s main body of work, and an invaluable record of one of the century’s foremost artists demonstrating, for the camera, the burdens and privileges of genius.

Le Mystère Picasso/The Picasso Mystery (1956 France 75 mins)

Prod Co: Filmsonor Prod, Dir: Henri-Georges Clouzot Phot: Claude Renoir Ed: Henri Colpi Mus: Georges Auric

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press. Dixon’s book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; a third revised and expanded edition is forthcoming in 2018. The book is a required text in universities throughout the world. Dixon’s book Black & White Cinema: A Brief History (2015) was featured on Turner Classic Movies as part of their series “Artists in Black and White.” Just published is Dixon’s newest book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies (co-authored with Richard Graham (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); forthcoming in late autumn 2017 is The Life and Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond (Auteur Press / Columbia University Press).