Latest Merchant Ivory production (produced with David Wolper) is a winner in spite of relatively modern look to the film. What will sell “Surviving Picasso” is Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of one of the century’s great artists and a stunning debut by Natascha McElhone as one of his mistresses, through whom we view the story.
Pic opens in Nazi-occupied Paris with Hopkins as a playful, charismatic Picasso instructing two Germans as to the value of modern paintings in their vaults; they find him amusing. soon he is at a bistro charming two art students into visiting his studio. One of them, Francoise (McElhone), willingly becomes his lover even though he still maintains ties with two previous lovers, one of whom is raising his daughter.
Over the next decade Francoise has two children with Picasso, learns what makes the artist tick, and eventually wins her freedom from him. Of the five women in his life we see here, she is alone in possessing the intelligence and self-assurance to withstand the force of Picasso’s personality. His brilliance and charm make him attractive even while allowing him to act as if the world revolves around him. His shabby treatment of family, staff and art dealers demonstrates that they need him more than he needs them, and he takes full advantage of that fact.
In telling the story through Francoise, “Surviving Picasso” demonstrates how mere mortals can confront brilliance without themselves being consumed. Besides Francoise, the only person in the film who does not bend to Picasso’s will is the equally celebrated artist Henri Matisse (Joss Ackland), who deals with him as a peer.
Based on the book “Picasso: Creator and Destroyer” by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington (better known these days as a right-wing political commentator), the script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala begins in the middle of Picasso’s life story. We get a few flashbacks of his early years, but the film is about living with recognized genius, not its discovery.
Working with director James Ivory for the third time (after “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day”), Hopkins is a full-blooded Picasso. This is a human being who’s as awed as everyone else by what he produces with his hands, but who then expects the rest of the world to pay him tribute — from the women he expects to fight over him to the art dealers who curry favor with him, and even the leadership of the Communist Party. Hopkins paints a complex portrait of the artist, letting us see why he inspires love and devotion as well as how he indulges his selfishness and egotism.
McElhone, who also appears in the upcoming “The Devil’s Own,” is splendid as the devoted but independent Francoise. At first almost coquettish, viewing Picasso’s entreaties as a means to escape her abusive father (Bob Peck), Francoise is the would-be artist consorting with a titan, just as McElhone is a new film actress who has to hold her own against vet Hopkins. Her final moments — on horseback in a bullring honoring her former lover in a public homage — is a stirring display of self-confidence.
The supporting cast is equally strong. Notable in small parts are Joan Plowright as Francoise’s grandmother, Peter Eyre as Picasso’s droll assistant, Diane Venora as his toadying second wife, and a nearly unrecognizable Julianne Moore as the mistress Francoise supplants.
This is a fine return to form for Merchant Ivory after the turgid “Jefferson in Paris,” their previous biographical outing. Tech credits, as always, are up to snuff, although, due to the nature of the story, few of the locations are as sumptuous as audiences have come to expect in their productions.