Portrait of the artist as an old dog

Sylvester Stallone's 'Daylight' is a disaster movie, but it's not nearly as disastrous as Merchant-Ivory's 'Surviving Picasso'; CINEMA

"Pablo Picasso," Jonathan Richman used to sing, "was never called an asshole." On the evidence of Surviving Picasso (15), the assertion seems improbable. Like most cinematic studies of genius behaving badly, James Ivory's film is far keener on showing Picasso's picturesque bad behaviour - especially with the ladies - than with trying to tackle, or simply to wonder at, the nature of his pictorial genius. A fair indication of its priorities is the sequence in which Picasso (Anthony Hopkins) is busy at work on Guernica. Ivory films most of this scene from a high point above the painter, so that we don't see much more of the canvas than a few blobs of grey and white. Were Picasso alone here, this might have been an interesting gesture of tact - a refusal to court bathos by showing a scathing masterpiece, and arguably the century's most famous picture, being faked up for the camera like a paint-by-numbers exercise. But Picasso's not alone. As he daubs away, a couple of possessive women lurch around behind him, giving each other biffs and shoves while Pablo chortles at being fought over. Ah, so that's why it's such a jolly painting.

In fine, Surviving Picasso is mostly fancified soap opera, and not bad fun - though one blushes a little to admit it - provided you don't mind being left in the dark about everything that makes its subject worthy of a biopic. Even the choice of period is revealing. It begins with the artist in his sixties, in 1943, the very year which, in the view of at least one widely read critic (John Berger, Success and Failure of Picasso), marked the end of "the second and last great period of Picasso's life as an artist". Bar the odd flashback, the rest of the film follows the next decade or so, in which Picasso grew immoderately rich, joined the Communist Party and had a complicated relationship with the painter Francoise Gilot, a woman more than 40 years his junior.

Many of the film's events will be familiar to anyone who has browsed through Life With Picasso (1964), the entertaining memoir Gilot co-wrote with Carlton Lake. For one reason or another, however, the film-makers have been obliged to bypass Gilot's work, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay is officially based on Picasso: Creator and Destroyer by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington. (Haven't read it, don't intend to.) Yet the film's version of those events falls strangely flat. Surviving Picasso disappoints not because Ivory & Co have got their facts wrong, but because they don't seem to know how to milk an anecdote.

Take the opening of the film, in which Picasso, smartly dressed, is suavely bamboozling a couple of German soldiers who have come to take an inventory of a storeroom of modern art by the likes of Matisse and their new-found mentor. The scene is amusing enough - against their will, the Nazis find themselves both charmed and slightly overwhelmed by this genial guide to "degenerate" art - but it altogether omits the punchline of the story as Gilot tells it, which is that Picasso managed to tie the men into such knots that they ended up valuing the works at a tiny fraction of their market worth. Surviving Picasso muffs several stories in this way, or skips others equally juicy - such as the one in which Hemingway arrives at Picasso's place come Liberation, is frostily informed that it is the done thing to present the maitre with an offering of some kind, and duly returns with a box of hand grenades.

Ideology, of a mildly feminist kind, may underlie some of these omissions. At any rate, the Francoise Gilot of the film, played by Natascha McElhone, tends to be rather more of an eternal female victim than the actual woman, who brought to her affair with Picasso an unusual degree of courage and independent-mindedness. And Gilot's central martyr's spot is flanked by weeping legions of other Picasso cast-offs: his first wife Olga (Jane Lapotaire), proud as Titania, mad as a snake; Marie Therese Walter, who in Susannah Harker's performance is a walking, talking definition of the word "door- mat"; and Dora Maar (Julianne Moore), a self- destructive fruit loop who, in real life, was packed off for treatment by Lacan. (Imagine a Merchant-Ivory film featuring Lacan. That you should see.)

Strangely, and in some ways mercifully, the characterisation of Picasso himself isn't altogether consistent with this plaintive line. "You're now in the labyrinth of the Minotaur," he leers at Francoise and her friend Genevieve when they first visit his studio; but the tormented creature at the heart of Surviving Picasso's maze is less a killer bull than a teddy bear. Armed with deep- brown contact lenses, Hopkins is a very plausible ringer for Pablo, and makes his attractiveness to much younger women easy to comprehend. His Picasso is an entertainer, a seducer, a clown ... and, alas, unlike the circus performers Picasso depicted, he's awful cute. While the film does give him some wilfully chilling and callous things to say and do, its most telling image is of the old sweetie pulling comical faces while a brace of his mistresses take cups of tea.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, make for the multiplex forthwith, because there's plenty more gurning where that came from. (If not, start saving for the Eurostar to Paris; there's still a few weeks left to catch the Picasso exhibition at the Grand Palais.) What chiefly dispirits about Surviving Picasso is its timidity in attempting to capture the great form- breaker within the plodding conventions of the artist's biopic, when innovative films of the last decade or so, from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters to 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould have pointed out some new pathways for the genre. There are only two moments when Ivory steps outside strict realism, and both give his film a welcome lift. In one, Pablo and Francoise "draw" in the air with light-pens, and the movements of their hands are engraved on the air in brilliant white lines as they would be on a slow-exposure photograph. In the other, we see passengers climbing into a Cubist car and trundling away. Otherwise, it's business as usual. Berets off, though, to one witty throwaway line, when Pablo invites Francoise back to his place to show her his etchings.

All that you need to know about Daylight (12) is that it is an expensive- looking retread of Seven- ties disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure, and stars Sylvester Stallone as a disgraced paramedic who risks his all to save a cross-section of humanity trapped in a tunnel after a chemical explosion. The most engaging presence on screen is that of a noble hound. Dog lovers will not leave the cinema harrowed.

Through the Olive Trees (U) is the third part of Abbas Kiarostami's trilogy, following Where Is the Friend's Home and And Life Goes On ... ; indeed, it's a film about the shooting of the latter film, near an Iranian town that has recently been ravaged by an earthquake. Kiarostami's work has already been acclaimed by many sane and sensible souls as almost unequalled in its delicacy, beauty and truth, so it is with due humility that I confess to being incapable of seeing these reputed wonders; a confession which may put me on a par with the dolts who used to say that a five-year-old could draw as well as Picasso.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.


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