A felt-tip pen squeaks across a white screen, conjuring a flower. Several flowers. A vase of flowers . . . It turns into a fish . . . The fish turns into a chicken . . . A big painted face appears on the chicken, and now it is a horned satyr. With, suddenly, bacchants dancing around him . . .
We are watching Pablo Picasso making a picture. When he is done, it will be erased from the screen, so that what we see is unique, a work of art that exists now only in a movie.
It is an awesome experience. It is delightful. Bravura doodling. If only it could be left at that.
But "The Mystery of Picasso" is trying to make a statement about the mysterious miracle of artistic creation itself. From the very title on, this celebrated film by Henri-Georges Clouzot, made in 1955 and only recently returned to circulation, is embarrassingly pompous, and the crashing, bombastic score by Georges Auric is literally a pain.
It's too bad, because you can glimpse what a charming, unpretentious picture it could be: the portrait of an artist at play. And Picasso, while he probably was not "the last of the great master painters," as the brochure babbles, was surely the most playful.
Auric seems to think he is at the circus: thunderous climaxes, inane Spanish heel clacks, drum rolls as the uncanny line meanders across the white landscape to reveal some wonderful shape. Evidently Clouzot didn't trust the suspense inherent in the act of creation to hold our interest. It seems like a betrayal of his own intent.
Mostly the artist draws or paints on the translucent screen while we watch from the other side. His invention is astounding, inexhaustible. He takes up an idea, subtly changes it again and again, adds to it until it is frankly rather a mess, wipes it out with a dark wash (in chess this is called "simplifying out of trouble") and makes something entirely different.
Over and over, he builds a picture from a line or two, richly populates it -- there are always lots of people in these works, even peeping out of the Cubist abstractions -- and restlessly changes it, subtly or massively, until at last he covers it all with great splashes of paint . . . and makes something out of that.
The amazing thing is the energy of his figures.
In about two seconds he scribbles some black lines. They become a bull. Not merely a likeness of a bull, but a bull at bay, a bull with character, dusty, snorting and massive. (Sometime try to suggest massiveness in a small sketch; it is not easy.) More scribbling: a picador leaning on his spear as he jabs the bull. Then the matador, superbly posturing, his arrogance caught in a few whip-flick lines.
And somehow, serendipitously, these figures all work together to form a balanced composition. It seems to be an instinct in Picasso. Everything he does, even the most slapdash scrawl, has a beautiful, complicated, elegant order.
Now a circus scene. A single unerring magnificently confident line depicts a man's head in the foreground. But there is something wrong with the top of it. A horse and rider next, then the arena, the ringmaster, other details. Fiddling, fiddling. At long last the busy pen returns to that head. And gives it a conical clown hat, a strong triangle that dominates and balances everything else. Picasso knew it was going to go there from the first moment.
Time is telescoped here, and a picture created before our eyes in 10 minutes may have taken hours. Thus, a charcoal nude shifts position abruptly. Shadows pass over her face as the artist experiments with light angles. The body turns, the legs bend and straighten. Picasso is discovering his picture as he goes.
Sometimes he quickly reviews his whole career in a single sketch: a dramatic goat's head appears first comic, then darkly evil, then a little of both. A bullfight goes Cubist and Surrealist by turns, becomes a study for "Guernica." A beach scene changes bewilderingly, characters appearing and shifting about, growing the trademark stalk-necks and disappearing in a holocaust of poster paint, popping up renewed and purified.
"This is very bad," Picasso mutters. "Very very bad. But don't worry, it could be worse."
Clouzot's idea of "back-projecting" pictures aborning is fascinating at first but fails to give us a sense of the little decisions the artist makes. The time-lapse photography doesn't help here, either. Perhaps the best moment in the whole picture is a shot from Picasso's side of the screen, taken over his shoulder: His hand hesitates, drifts blindly across the half-finished sketch as if registering the scene in its fingertips, suddenly pounces on a particular spot and adds some lovely bit that magically completes the balance.
A bullfighter and a lady: The man's britches are limned, the knee tassles, one calf . . . and the pen stops. After several seconds the second calf is created with one perfect curve. This single line turns the man toward the lady; move it a quarter inch to the right and he would face away from her.
It is the details that make a genius, and it is the details that make this film watchable. Go see, but take your earmuffs.
The Mystery of Picasso, at the West End Circle, is rated PG.