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Henri-George Clouzot said he often wondered what it would be like to sit in a room with Mozart while he composed The Jupiter Symphony, or with Rimbaud as he wrote Le B√Ęteau Ivre.

He couldn’t do anything about Mozart or Rimbaud, but Clouzot was able to convince Pablo Picasso to work with him. Instead of simply sitting in the same room, watching Picasso paint, Clouzot found a way to turn the movie screen into Picasso’s canvas.

In The Mystery of Picasso, audiences can see a dozen paintings take shape, stroke by stroke, from blank canvas to finished work of art. In fact, The Mystery of Picasso is the only place audiences can see these particular works by Picasso. After the film was completed, the paintings were destroyed. The only remaining trace is on Clouzot’s film, which is now on home video for the first time ever.

The Screen is Their Canvas

Picasso's paintings were destroyed after filming
Picasso’s paintings were destroyed after filming

Most of The Mystery of Picasso is made by a stationary camera focused on a translucent piece of paper. Picasso sits on the other side of the paper and draws and paints. The camera records the painting on film, essentially taking the point of view of the canvas. It is as though Picasso is painting on the other side of the movie screen, or in our case, television set.

If you’re interested in seeing how the effect is achieved, then you only have to watch the middle of the film. Clouzot sends out a remote camera crew to photograph the stationary setup — a big anchored camera pointing straight at vertical easel in a carefully lit studio. Clouzot shows us how the system works by intercutting between the shirtless painter working and the close-up on the painting itself.

But during most of the film, we see only the paintings as they emerge on our screen. Sometimes we hear the marker or brush strokes. Sometimes we hear a well-matched piece of music. Toward the end, we even hear Picasso say “I’m calling this done” or “this is going very, very badly.” But almost all we ever see is the master’s canvas springing to life with texture and color and images.

The Third Dimension

Clouzot’s idea is inspired; it achieves two things. He says he wanted to record a master at work, which he does. But rather than simply making a record, he found an ideal use for his particular medium, film. Film is visual, like painting, but it includes the extra dimension of time. Rather than simply making a documentary, Clouzot allows Picasso to make a three-dimensional (the 2 dimensions of the screen, plus time) work of art.

Watching Picasso’s process is enlightening. He always starts simply. He draws a cartoon sketch or geometric intersecting lines, in plain black, on the white canvas. On some of the simpler pieces, he simply adds several layers of color and a few layers of texture.

On the more serious paintings he evolves these sketches and forms, painting over the original, adding color, adding light, shadow and depth, or even changing the form itself by painting over a part of it. A painting of a goat has a flat neck for half of its lifetime, but Picasso decides to paint a curve in it to match the two curving horns on top.

The paintings themselves vary in design, quality, and color. Perhaps one or two of them might have been masterpieces. I found myself telling Picasso “Stop! It’s perfect!” only to have him add yet another layer of color or detail, usually for the better. Other works are merely sketches — an artist amusing himself on an idle afternoon.

Variations on a Theme

Sometimes camera follows Picasso stroke-for-stroke, sometimes it follows the painter in stages — showing first a set of black lines, then suddenly adding all the yellows, then all the blues, then another set of details, and so on.

Once Clouzot even runs the footage backwards. Far from simply being a filmmaker’s trick, the exercise shows just how Picasso’s paintings evolve. One some of his geometric black and white paintings, he’ll black out areas that are too complex, even though they have already been developed into forms or shapes. So often, the former complexity is only hinted at by what remains on the canvas. Running the film backwards is a way of deconstructing Picasso’s painting to see what went into it.

Video Presentation

The only complaint about the video presentation, which on the whole is solid, rich, and clean, is that it fails to capture a trick Clouzot used to give moviegoers an extra treat. The last reel of the film spills out from a square, 4:3 aspect ratio, into a wide, 2:35:1 aspect ratio. In a theater, the size of the screen would have grown almost twice as large. On video, because of letterboxing, the last section is almost twice as small.

Certainly a DVD made for 16:9 televisions would allow for the original horizontal expansion in the last reel. The square segments could fill the height of the TV screen, and the last reel could then fill up the sides. The perfect DVD would present the film twice. Side A could be encoded for widescreen TVs, while side B would let square TV watchers see the full-frame presentation and letterbox the last reel.

But as a friend once said, the most important thing is just to see the film, and not to worry about presentation if you don’t have a choice. So it is with The Mystery of Picasso, available for the first time ever on home video.