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Pablo Picasso's Portrait on the Big Screen

Director James Ivory talks about his film's candid treatment of the artist's life

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 20, 1996


By all accounts, Pablo Picasso was a larger-than-life figure. As an artist, he was the most towering giant of this century, a founder of the revolutionary cubist movement, and an innovator in every field from sculpture to portrait painting.

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As a man, he appears to have been just the opposite - an arrogant and undisciplined person with a special weakness for exploiting the women who attracted him.

All of which makes him an irresistible subject for motion-picture treatment, as Warner Bros. realized several years ago. Having difficulty shaping his tumultuous life into manageable dramatic form, the studio called in a trio of cinematic experts: director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the core members of Merchant Ivory Productions and crafters of widely hailed films ranging from "Shakespeare Wallah" and "The Europeans" to "Maurice" and "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge."

The result of their work is "Surviving Picasso," starring Anthony Hopkins as the middle-aged artist and newcomer Natascha McElhone as Franoise Gilot, a young Frenchwoman who lived with him for 10 years, bore two of his children, and finally summoned the courage to slam the door on his relentlessly self-centered behavior.

Also in the cast are Julianne Moore as Dora Maar, his longtime mistress; Diane Venora as Jacqueline Rocque, who became his second wife; Joan Plowright as Franoise's lively grandmother; and Joss Ackland as Henri Matisse, another prodigiously original figure in modern art. Other contributors to the production include such Merchant Ivory regulars as Tony Pierce-Roberts, who did the color-filled camera work, and Richard Robbins, who composed the atmospheric score.

Audience's response to film

"Surviving Picasso" is already receiving more favorable response than Merchant Ivory's last study of a famous man, "Jefferson in Paris," but it remains to be seen whether audiences will be fascinated or repelled by the movie's candid portrait of the artist as a seducer, cad, and all-around womanizer.

In a recent interview, Ivory said women who've seen the film generally feel close and sympathetic toward "all those poor, downtrodden, long-suffering consorts." If anyone complains about the story, he added, it tends to be men, "who might feel [their gender has] been put in a bad light."

Ivory's interest in Picasso stretches back to his days as an art-school student, when the "long shadow" of the Spanish master cast its spell on his own youthful paintings. In treating the artist as a movie subject, he wanted to avoid both awe-struck reverence and mere debunking of the Picasso legend.

Still, he says, "when I read about his life, I was sometimes reminded of a Marx Brothers movie. I decided that if we could get some of that antic energy into the film, it would be the correct mood for this kind of artist-showman that Picasso was. He was deeply unpleasant sometimes to just about everybody, but he was also full of humor and he had a devilish wit. He lived absolutely to the hilt in everything he did."

Ivory's view of Picasso as a sort of intellectual Chico Marx ties in with his analysis of the artist's psychological makeup, which he sees as perpetually stuck in an endless adolescent groove.