Pablo Picasso's Portrait on the Big Screen

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

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.

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.

"I think Picasso was caught, emotionally, at about 15 years old," the filmmaker says. "He was a macho Latin kid who was determined to have his own way in absolutely everything, and particularly with women. He never really developed out of that or got away from it."

Even his celebrated artworks carry the imprint of this condition, Ivory believes. "He was always stamping around and showing off and saying, 'Look at me! Look at me!' like a kid," the director observes, "even when he was 60. He was brilliantly gifted, and the world was ready for him, so he could get away with that. You don't have to be a saint to be a great artist, or a great anything. But emotionally speaking, I think he was a case of arrested development."

These remarks dovetail with Hopkins's vigorous performance, which marks his third starring role for Merchant Ivory, following "Howards End" and "The Remains of the Day," where he played a wealthy landowner and a lonely servant, respectively. Ivory chose him for Picasso because "this is someone who can convincingly play a genius who has a rapier wit ... and seems to be an intelligent and thinking person. Not every leading man is that way."

Role challenging for Hopkins

Of all their collaborations, Ivory says, this was probably the most challenging for the actor to handle. "He had to play someone of another nationality," the filmmaker notes, "and Picasso had a morose Spanish side that had to come out. So along with his on-screen ebullience, Hopkins also had to submerge himself in Spanish misery, and that's not very easy to do."

In the end, though, the star appears to have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. "For too long he'd been playing inward-turned, conflicted men," Ivory notes, referring to pictures like "Shadowlands," where Hopkins portrayed theologian C.S. Lewis, and "Nixon," where he played the moody title character. "Here he could break out of that and stamp around and roar, and he liked that.

"I don't think Picasso had many conflicts," the director continues, "and if he did, he just shoved them down and didn't think about them, or took them out on other people. Hopkins was dying to play an uninhibited, outgoing character who personified the love of all good things in life, and had energy and charisma. I think it was a release for him."

Merchant Ivory is a busy production company these days, preparing the release of Merchant's second feature-length film as a director - a drama called "The Proprietor," starring Jeanne Moreau as an aging woman coping with troubled memories. It's also starting to gear up for Ivory's next project about the family of American author James Jones during their sojourn in Paris during the 1960s and '70s.

This will be Merchant Ivory's fourth French-based movie in a row, and it will continue Ivory's current string of portrait-films centering on influential men in their middle years. But different from all his previous pictures will be its focus on children rather than adults, a trend that has gathered force in a number of recent movies.

"I've never done a film in which there were many, many scenes with children," he says, adding that the youngsters will be seen as teenagers, at age 10, and around five years old. "It makes me nervous," he adds. But his happy smile reveals that, as usual, he can't wait to get the picture under way.

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