Down and dirty with 'Picasso'

November 08, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

As a portrait of a man behaving badly -- and I don't mean because he has both eyes on one side of his face but because he talked out of both sides of his mouth -- "Surviving Picasso" takes a nasty look at asatyr named Pablo who treated the feminine gender like his own private harem as he smeared his way to fame and glory.

"It's always the same," a friend once commented on the peculiar fantasy that seems to dominate that libidinous cellar of the male animal's still semi-reptilian, ancient brain.

It's the one where the guy gets to sleep with whomever he wants, but his No. 1 woman can't. Moreover, she's got to stay home, working like a dog while he's out doing the great things that give him glory, fame and make him sexually attractive. His freedom is meaningless to him without the delicious corollary of her slavery. His love is in some sense real but also blasphemous: He wants to isolate her from the world, put her on a pedestal that is actually a dungeon, make her utterly dependent upon and utterly fearful of him. Meanwhile, he comes and goes as it suits him -- but that's OK. He's on the cover of Life, painting in light.

Derived from Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington's controversial book "Picasso: Creator and Destroyer," the movie was written, produced and directed by that heretofore sedately 19th century team of specialists Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, responsible previously for a famous slew of good pictures from James and Forster.

Possibly in this case they are somewhat overmatched by the materials, which are horrifying but dramatically inert. The story is eventually of triumph: It is told from the point of view of Picasso's mistress and mother of two of his children, Francoise Gilot, who was with him from 1943 to 1953, the magazine-cover phase of his life. After years of abuse and unbelievable scheduling hassles (as he visited his ex-wives and various other mistresses), she eventually was smart enough to bail out and survived more or less intact.

But the movie really goes nowhere after defining the terms of the relationship: He's a goat with an advanced case of priapism, she's a masochist who pays the price to share his greatness. And ? Well, there is no And.

Picasso is played by Anthony Hopkins under a gallon of Man-tan, and, great though he is, he can never convince us he's Spanish, not with that perfect British diction. He's also not very sexy: You don't get the simian-heat that the monkey-like art genius generated, even in the tame pages of Life in the mid-'50s: a nut-brown baldie with dark, hot eyes, just bursting with musk, testosterone, sweat, hunger and ruthless ambition. There's too much intelligence in Hopkins' eyes, not enough raw genius. He doesn't seem protean, but just some kind of schemer.

Francois, a wannabe painter who allowed herself to be picked up by the mashing artist in a bar in Occupied Paris, is played by British stage actress Natascha McElhone, a kind of abstract of Jane Seymour. The movie goes to some length to develop her psychology -- she's the child of an abusive father, clearly programmed to be attracted to a powerful much-older man -- and to evoke her life and her emotional connection to her grandmother and some otherwise innocent members of Picasso's circle. But, really, she's not very interesting.

Picasso it pretty much takes for granted, like Jason in the horror movies. He just is, goatish, licentious, grasping, touching, using, rambling, artist as near-rapist. Plus, he stunk of cigarettes. What woman could turn that down?

'Surviving Picasso'

Starring Anthony Hopkins and Natascha McElhone

Directed by James Ivory

Rated R (sexuality)

Sun score:** 1/2

Pub Date: 11/08/96

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