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More Panting than Painting

Whenever someone makes a film about a great artist, it is much easier, and a great deal more cinematic, to show him hopping into bed instead of daubing at a canvas. In the case of Surviving Picasso, a prosaic but fitfully fascinating portrait of the artist as a randy old goat, the filmmakers were legally bound not to show Pablo Picasso's work on-screen. (Fake Picassos were commissioned for those few scenes where we actually see artwork.) Which is one of the reasons why, throughout this amusingly old-fashioned biopic, the emphasis on scandal over aesthetics is even more pronounced than usual.

Actually, Surviving Picasso is something of a joint biography, in that it focuses on the life (and, to a much lesser degree, the art) of Picasso through the prism of his ten-year relationship with Francoise Gilot, one of the very few women who walked away from the notorious rake before he abandoned her. Gilot's Life with Picasso, a memoir written with Carlton Lake and published in 1964, is considered an honest and revealing account of their tempestuous affair. Trouble is, the filmmakers couldn't get the rights to that, either. So they used another book about Picasso and his lovers, Arianna Stassinopoulos' Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, and cobbled together a screenplay that allows Gilot to provide even more gossipy revelations about Picasso's past lovers in voice-over narration. Try to imagine an art history class taught by the editors of People magazine, and you will have some idea of what to expect.

Surviving Picasso is the latest effort by director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, collaborators best known for such high-toned literary adaptations as Howard's End, Remains of the Day and A Room with a View. Their new film does not rank with their best, but it is by no means an embarrassment. If you go with sufficiently lowered expectations, you might even find it entertaining, or at least diverting. Throughout the film, however, you are very much aware of complexities simplified and opportunities squandered. Early in the narrative, we see Picasso interrogated by comically befuddled Nazi officials during the German occupation of France. This could have been the jumping-off point for a thoughtful drama about the ways Picasso and other artists were able to survive, and thrive, during this period of terrible repression. In Surviving Picasso, however, the scene is mere window dressing, presented only to establish the time and setting of the first encounter between Picasso and Gilot.

In 1943, Picasso ambles over to a table in Le Petit Benoit, a trendy Left Bank bistro, and invites Gilot to drop by his studio and -- no kidding! -- look at his etchings. When we first meet her, Gilot is 23 years old, some 40 years younger than Picasso. She is an art student from a well-to-do family, and, not surprisingly, she is suitably awed by the aged satyr who obviously desires her. More important, she has already been psychologically primed for the role of an abused woman -- very early in the film, we see her brutalized by her authoritarian father. And yet, right from the start, Gilot appears to be almost as strong-willed as the great Picasso. When she does visit his studio, accompanied by a childhood friend, she is not at all intimidated when Picasso warns her: "You are now in the labyrinth of the Minotaur ... who perishes if he doesn't devour at least two young ladies a day." On her second visit, she is a very willing accomplice in her own seduction. Picasso is greatly impressed by her verve -- and even more impressed when she drops her velvet dress, and reveals she is wearing nothing underneath. True to his calling as an artist, Picasso pauses to appraise her face and form, considering all manner of possibilities. We know what will happen next, and, to their credit, the filmmakers know that we know. They don't have to show us, so they quickly move on.

And they don't slow down for a moment during the rest of this two-hours-plus movie. Surviving Picasso is nothing if not brisk as it charts the highlights of a stormy ten-year union that produced two children and generated considerable gossip. Time and again, Gilot is forced to confront evidence that Picasso does not place stock in fidelity, or even common decency. Past lovers -- including Olga (Jane Lapotaire), the artist's first wife, and Dora Maar (Julianne Moore), Gilot's immediate predecessor -- appear periodically like admonishing ghosts. And even while Picasso and Gilot live together in unwedded bliss, Picasso regularly visits his other "family," the tremulous Marie-Therese Walter (Susannah Harker) and the daughter she had with the great painter. Picasso allows Marie-Therese to clip his hair and fingernails, but demands that she keep the clippings bagged, labeled and safely filed away. That way, he figures, no one can use them to practice voodoo against him.

Anthony Hopkins plays Picasso with robust swagger, furious self-confidence and a wide streak of mischievous cruelty. It is a suitably larger-than-life performance, one that radiates just enough brazen, bare-chested virility to make Picasso's success as a heartless seducer seem credible. Without resorting to much in the way of makeup, Hopkins also manages to convincingly resemble classic photographs of Picasso, so that he often looks like a lascivious turtle who has discarded his shell and slipped into something more comfortable. Surviving Picasso doesn't try to "explain" why the artist is such a thoroughgoing son of a bitch. But Hopkins does much to help us understand that he is a bastard primarily because it gives him so much pleasure, and because so many women and worshipful acolytes allow him to get away with it.

As Gilot, newcomer Natascha McElhone has more than enough poise and emotional range to make her under-written character come across as attractive and compelling. She also does as well as anyone could when it comes to delivering long stretches of prosaic narration. If she isn't nearly as colorful as some of her co-stars -- most notably, Joan Plowright as Gilot's anxious grandmother and Joss Ackland, briefly, as a charmingly melancholy Henri Matisse -- it isn't her fault. They, like Hopkins, have the juicier parts and the meatier dialogue.

-- Joe Leydon

Surviving Picasso.
Directed by James Ivory. With Anthony Hopkins and Natascha McElhone.
Rated R.
125 minutes.

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