Want to see vain, bullying guys who think with their hard-ons? Forget the NBC sitcom Men Behaving Badly — that’s wussy stuff — and head out for the new fall flicks. Start with Surviving Picasso, the frustratingly one-sided bio drama that looks at revolutionary artist Pablo Picasso through the eyes of the women he seduced, abused and abandoned. Anthony Hopkins, the Oscar-winning Welsh actor, invested tricky Dick Nixon and Hannibal the Cannibal with more charm and sympathy than he does the hotheaded Spanish painter and sculptor in this Portrait of the Artist as a Sexist Pig.
The film focuses on the 10 years Picasso spent mistreating Frantoise Gilot, played by the striking newcomer Natascha McElhone. Gilot was a 23-year-old art student living in Paris when she met the 60ish Picasso in 1943; she became his mistress and bore him two children, Claude and Paloma. She also bore his tyrannies and infidelities until she left the petulant, possessive tightwad in 1953.
Gilot, who later married Dr. Jonas Salk, was a major source for Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, a best-selling 1988 hatchet job by socialite Arianna Stassino-poulos Huffington. Trashy and trivial were some of the kinder words critics leveled at the book. Noted documentarian David L. Wolper optioned the film rights anyway and hooked up with producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to tell the story onscreen. But hope that the classy trio behind Howards End and The Remains of the Day has found a balance between Huffington’s attack on the artist’s machismo and Norman Mailer’s salute to it in the equally reviled Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man quickly evaporates.
Unlike Huffington, who couldn’t tell classicism from cubism, Merchant and Ivory know their art. Picasso’s friendship and rivalry with Henri Matisse (Joss Ackland) is sharply done. But the film is hamstrung by the Picasso estate’s refusal to allow the use of his work. Hopkins faces mostly blank or unfinished canvases, providing only hints of how the misshapen females in Picasso’s art reflected his rage.
Jhabvala, an astute adapter of fiction, stumbles when she deals with real people, as in Jefferson in Paris. Her Picasso talks as if he’s reading out of Quotations From Chairman Pablo. To wit: “Style only comes after you die.” Or: “I make a lot of mistakes, and so does God.” Or: “In Spain, the eye is a sensual organ, and looking at a woman can be rape. Pape with the eye.”
To deliver such bluster effectively, it would take a force of nature, which Hopkins emphatically is not. He looks the part but speaks and acts with cool British reserve. What’s needed is an ardent flame that might draw women against their will. Anthony “Zorba” Quinn, a less proficient actor, could provide it effortlessly.
We never see the raging Minotaur who could drive his first wife, Olga (Jane Lapotaire), to insanity and his second, Jacqueline (Diane Venora), to enslavement and suicide. One rejected mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter (Susannah Harker), reverently clips and collects his toenails. Another, the artist Dora Maar (a very fine Julianne Moore), scratches and claws at a rival while Picasso happily paints his Guernica. And for a decade, Gilot subjugates herself as willingly as Sabartes (tellingly etched by Peter Eyre), the assistant who endures sadistic treatment to be touched by greatness.
Why didn’t Gilot split sooner? You never learn from Surviving Picasso, which lacks the courage to show the women in Picasso’s life as conspirators in their own debasement. Portraying women as victims is as tired and clichTd as reducing men to monsters. You go to Surviving Picasso expecting insights into the man’s art and his magnetism or at least a fair debate with a knowledgeable feminist who could whup his misogynist ass. Denied on all counts.