The Mystery of Picasso (“Le Mystère Picasso”), by Henri-George Clouzot
One is a monster of French cinema, the other one of the greatest painters in history. In a documentary that flirts with fiction, Clouzot and Picasso reveal their friendship and their love of art.
Henri-Georges Clouzot is considered one of the greatest French filmmakers. Described as an extremely demanding director with his actors, a misanthropist attracted by human perversions, the recurring themes of his feature films (The Raven (“Le Corbeau”), The Wages of Fear (“Le Salaire de la peur”), and even The Truth (“La Vérité”) are manipulation, deception and treason.
With The Mystery of Picasso Clouzot departed from his usual register and produced his first – and only – documentary. Through this work, he seeks to penetrate the mystery of artistic creation: “To find out what is going on in a painter’s head, just follow his hand. “
A picture is worth a thousand words
Clouzot explained in an interview in 1970: “When the camera has something to say, I believe it should not be burdened by dialogue that can only distract from the spirit of the images.”
This reflection is central to The Mystery of Picasso, shot in 1955, where the director's rare interventions never aim to explain Picasso's approach. Clouzot chose to simply place the camera in front of the canvas, producing long takes where the master's drawings and paintings take shape in real time. The hypnotic images subtly shift from black and white to colour, rendering words useless.
A film within the film
The Mystery of Picasso is more than just a documentary in the strict sense: it deals above all with the relationship that Picasso and Clouzot have with painting – Clouzot was an amateur and painted himself during his free time – and the relationship between the two of them.
Playing with self-reference (“mise en abyme”), Clouzot puts himself and his technician in the frame. When he addresses Picasso, he doesn’t ask him to talk about his work, but simply tells him how much time he has left to finish his drawing.
The film takes shape before our eyes. The exchanges between the two artists, beneath their banal exterior, reveal the intimacy they share.
A lauded experiment
Upon its release, The Mystery of Picasso was praised by critics. In 1956, it was unanimously awarded the jury’s Special Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
The director will go on to say that Hollywood made him many offers throughout his career. Offers he always refused, believing that he enjoyed a precious creative freedom in France.
The Mystery of Picasso (“Le Mystère Picasso”, 1956) was screened internationally by the Institut français as part of the "Great Classics Restored" series.
The Institut français offers a catalogue of over 2,500 titles, enabling the French cultural network and its partners to screen French films around the world.