Sleeping with the minotaur

Adam Mars-Jones on two new movies about individuals trapped in nightmare worlds not of their own making: `Surviving Picasso', a portrait of the artist as an old monster, and `Daylight', a subterranean rescue mission for Sly Stallone

All the credits for Surviving Picasso are, unusually, at the end of the film, presumably in an attempt to conceal the screenplay's source in Arianna Stassinopoulos's book, Picasso: Creator and Destroyer - not exactly a high point in cultural criticism. But in fact Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's script is well turned, apart from the oddity of having flashbacks within the story of Francoise Gilot (Natascha McElhone) to incidents in Picasso's life before she met him - you can't flash back to a place you've never been. The film as a whole, though, is a welcome recovery after Jefferson in Paris, and is the least Merchant Ivory-ish film to be made by that team for many years. For once, they are recreating not order but turmoil, and a man who demanded stability from the women who loved him, but then slipped away from those settled arrangements himself.

There are plenty of images in the film of Picasso as a jailer or predator. On Francoise's first visit to the artist's studio he tells her that she's now in the labyrinth of the minotaur - isn't she afraid she'll never get out? When he suggests that she move in, it is not so much as his lover as his "secret captive". Francoise was almost half a century younger than Picasso, and seems to have walked into her life with him with her eyes wide shut. Her complaint essentially is that he was meant to be as wholly transformed by her as she was by him. The film shows that he almost was - that he was able to suspend some of his exploitative patterns. The other strong male figure in the film, Francoise's father (Bob Peck), is straightforwardly abusive; compared to him, Picasso has to be seen as liberating for all his manipulativeness.

Picasso in the film is not someone who trusts his emotions, as Francoise wants, but who deifies his impulses. There's a funny, fleeting moment when Picasso, throwing books at his delinquent son Claude, accidentally hits Francoise with one. Any other person would at least consider apologising, but Picasso didn't get to be Picasso by mistrusting his moods. If he throws a book at Francoise, she must be culpable. Simpler to extend the tirade to include her than to step back from his temperament.

The film's Picasso is the sort of egotist who turns his moods into temporary countries that other people must inhabit. When he feels uncreative, he must measure his power over art dealers and hangers-on by making them wait hours for an audience. When he feels unlovable, he must measure his power over his lover by making her beg for his attention.

Anthony Hopkins's performance, like his Nixon, contains elements of impersonation that aren't allowed to predominate. He makes no attempt at a vocal imitation but offers a flickering physical likeness. The actor's face and body were bland and trim when compared with Nixon's hideous distinctiveness, and here he must find a wiriness and fire that are also somewhat foreign. There's a touching moment in Picasso's first intimate conversation with Francoise when he becomes momentarily unsure of himself, suddenly fearful that this young goddess must be mocking his scanty hair and his unattractiveness. The character's vulnerability is bristling with armour, but Hopkins keeps opening up chinks.

The film ends with a montage of the work that Picasso was making during this period, perhaps with a view to rehabilitating the artist after indulging the man so little. But long before then a more complicated picture has emerged, of a monster without power except what his victims gave him, and a woman who found the thread out of that labyrinth.

In Daylight, Sylvester Stallone does his standard superhuman stuff in a slightly unusual setting - a tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey, turned into a place of hellish danger by a vast explosion and a toxic fire, by the river above threatening to burst in, and finally by salvage operations conducted from topside by authorities who can't believe (not realising that this is a disaster movie) that there could be any survivors. Stallone, an ex big-shot paramedic with a secret sorrow, breaks in from above to provide rescue and comfort, though to do so he must climb down through a series of huge fans that can only be switched off for seconds at a time. All this, not to mention punching holes in mud walls to plant explosives, he does with his career-long expression of fuddled nobility.

Director Rob Cohen experienced disaster at first hand, if on a smaller scale, when in 1980 he survived a hotel fire in Boston that claimed five lives. Having seen Towering Inferno, he knew to stay low and stay put till the emergency services could reach him, and used wet towels to seal off the bottoms of doors. Presumably he didn't find himself part of a little group of survivors playing out miniature dramas of selfishness and self-sacrifice, but then that was only real life.

If Stallone is a blue-collar redeemer, leading his followers first to a sealed-off chapel built by "sandhogs" (the original construction workers on the tunnel) and then actually behind the crucified Christ on its wall into a concealed flue, he soon gathers disciples. Notably there's Madelyne (Amy Brenneman), an aspiring playwright who puts her rubber-soled shoes on her hands before wrestling with a high-voltage cable. After a single line of professional self-obsession ("Nobody goes to a theatre any more"), she becomes Stallone's devoted helper ("If we don't die, I'm wondering if I could give you a call?"). At one point she utters a line that threatens to push Daylight towards self-parody, when she replies to Stallone's umpteenth "Are you OK?" with "We gotta stop asking each other that".

Most fun in his brief time on screen is Viggo Mortensen as Roy Nord, the sportswear tycoon, who models and demonstrates his own products as he struggles to escape the traumatised tunnel. He is the bad angel to Stallone's good, regarding the disaster as a promotional opportunity to be exploited, and the film can't let him get very far since he threatens its assumption that a disaster is a sort of Outward Bound Course in extremis, with people learning to suppress the base aspect of their rage to survive. Roy Nord makes sure his escape attempt is videotaped, and uses his mobile phone while climbing a vast shaft clogged with unstable debris. Don't you find it annoying when people do that?

Both films are on general release from today

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