If there are any moviemakers you could easily imagine Pablo Picasso despising, it’s the Merchant Ivory team. In films like Howards End, The Remains of the Day, and many, many lesser efforts, this veteran trio — director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala — have turned civility into a kind of middlebrow fetish. Their films have come most alive when the characters are most repressed. Picasso, on the other hand, was the most gloriously unrepressed artist of the 20th century. In life, as in art, he crashed through boundaries he never even saw. His work was a series of explosions unearthing a world in which man’s eye — savage, insatiable, ecstatic — had replaced God’s. So what happens when the masters of tea-party refinement take on the anarchic shaman-genius of modern art? Cool, assured, emotionally remote, Merchant Ivory’s Surviving Picasso is never less than watchable, but it’s also a cinematic paradox, a movie that works to capture Picasso from every angle yet somehow misses the fire in his belly.
Loosely adapting Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington’s 1989 biography, Ivory and Jhabvala confine the film to the 10-year relationship between Picasso (Anthony Hopkins) and Francoise Gilot (Natascha McElhone). The two meet during the German occupation of Paris in 1943. He’s already in his 60s, a legend many times over, as smug and arrogant in his power as a Hollywood mogul. She’s an aspiring painter of 23, the sort of ripely available ingenue the randy old master is used to having for breakfast. Except that Francoise is different. Picasso is seduced by her beauty (given that she’s young enough to be his granddaughter, the perversity of the attraction is right on the surface), but he’s also hooked by her strength. The cruel irony is that he needs that strength only to try and destroy it, to turn Francoise — as he does everyone else — into a supplicant, a slave, another prop in his life canvas.
It’s fascinating to see the lurid egomaniacal drama of Picasso’s private life. Here’s the aging yet still-vigorous artist, a ruthless, manipulative sultan, ashamed of nothing (except, perhaps, his balding pate), as stingy as Ebenezer Scrooge, toying shrewdly with the dealers who arrive like pilgrims to buy his paintings, juggling his shattered former lovers. Hopkins is physically perfect (squat, burly torso; cold, hypnotic stare), and if his accent is a Continental muddle, he holds us with his range of moods: now playful, now raging, now tender. He understands how Picasso’s ferocious appetites masked his anxiety about death, and how his leviathan bravado hardened, with age, into monstrous, crushing will.
For all that, there’s something vital missing from this Picasso: his life-force sexuality. Chaste to the end, Ivory stages erotic scenes in a ”tasteful” suggestive manner that’s all wrong for an artist who viewed himself as an avenging Minotaur. What’s more, he soft-pedals the tormented symbiosis of the central love affair. Newcomer McElhone has a fresh-bloom presence, but as the movie goes on, that bloom never ripens into anything more ardent. We see Picasso’s obsession, but where’s Francoise’s? McElhone is upstaged by several of the other actresses, notably Julianne Moore as the acrid, neurotic Dora Marr, Picasso’s ”weeping woman” mistress of the late ’30s. Unwittingly or not, Ivory and company end up turning Francoise into a saint of resilience. They make surviving Pablo Picasso look all too easy. B