A lively period piece about a footnote in the titular artist’s life, Fernando Colomo’s “Picasso’s Gang” reps a partial return to form for a helmer whose best work has always been dexterous and refreshingly pretension-free. But the subject matter — the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre — offers potential that Colomo doesn’t exploit. Instead he opts for a wholesome, caricatured homage to the spirit of the times, a fun but forgettable approach. Despite a slow early showing at home, this visually splendid picture could find itself hanging on fest walls.
“Picasso’s Gang” refers to the group of artists that formed around the Spaniard in Paris in the early 1900s, with the aim of blowing apart the artistic old guard, but Colomo cleverly co-opts the phrase to suggest criminality. Apart from the unprepossessing-looking Picasso (Ignacio Mateos) himself, they include writer Guillaume Apollinaire (Pierre Benezit), Max Jacob (Lionel Abelanski) and Manolo Hugue (Jordi Vilches), along with Picasso’s partner and muse, Fernande (Raphaelle Agogue). Gery Pieret (Alexis Michalik), also known as the Baron, is a dissolute ne’er-do-well and the basis of a book by Apollinaire.
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Much of their time is spent trying to hustle advances from patron Leo Stein (David Coburn) for such as-yet-unrecognized masterpieces by Picasso as “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” On a visit to the Louvre, where they spend much of their time arguing with the conservative likes of Matisse (Toni Gaultier) on the subject of art, the Baron steals a couple of Iberian busts and gives them to Picasso. Later, while on a trip to the Pyrenees, Picasso learns the Baron has stolen the Mona Lisa, and is called in by the police as a witness.
The script, which could have played a little faster and looser with the rather dull facts, instead cleaves closely to the historical record. This means Picasso himself, who was marginal to the theft, also ends up also being marginal to the plot; the unflattering depiction of the artist as an opportunist unafraid to betray his friends is intriguing, but the script never broaches the tricky issue of where either his own genius or that of any others may have come from. The film is really about the larger-than-life, tragicomic Apollinaire, the only nuanced character here, and the bouncy Benezit makes the most of it, duly stealing every scene.
Colomo’s screenplay dutifully shoehorns in many of the big names of the time, with Gertrude Stein (Cristina Toma) and Alice B. Toklas (Eszter Tompa) making fleeting appearances. The petty intrigues, jealousies and passions are all dealt with at the same breakneck pace, with just the occasional flash of wit to break up the incessant comings and goings.
The mess of the studio and the hustles, bustles and struggles of bohemian life are well rendered, with art director Patrice Vermette and Jose Luis Alcaine (Pedro Almodovar’s current lenser of choice) collaborating on delicious period visuals that superbly evoke bohemian Paris in the 1900s. Exteriors were largely shot in Budapest.