Color, 1956, 78 mins. 15 secs.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Starring Pablo Picasso
Arrow Video (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB HD/PAL), Gaumont (Blu-ray & DVD) (France R0 HD/PAL), Milestone/Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

Though The Mystery of Picassonot one of France's most The Mystery of Picassoprolific directors, Henri-Georges Clouzot can easily lay claim to being among the more influential thanks to a string of classic features, many of which have only recently been fully recognized among English-speaking audiences. Hot on the heels of his two most famous films, The Wages of Fear and Diabolique, he undertook a very different type of project in 1956: The Mystery of Picasso (Le mystère Picasso), a simple but powerfully effective document of the creative process of the most famous painter of the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso.

Accompanied by cinematographer Claude Renoir, Clouzot had unprecedented access to the painter for a series of paintings, building off a simple idea found in the 1947 Paul Haesaerts short, Visit to Picasso (in which the artist painted on sheets of glass in front of the camera). Clouzot ran wild with the idea by utilizing multiple aspect ratios and film formats (including switching between black-and-white and color) to add a dynamic cinematic component to footage of Picasso at work, this time on a string of paintings ranging from simple one-figure designs to elaborate, multi-colored riots of imagination -- all captured on translucent canvases that allowed the camera to capture every brush stroke in action from the other side. According to press coverage at the time, all The Mystery of Picassoof the paintings were destroyed afterwards so they would only exist on film, though that appears to be an exaggeration now according to art historians.

The Mystery of PicassoThe Mystery of Picasso first appeared on DVD in 2003 from Image Entertainment via a license through Milestone, whose brand adorned the cover as with other titles like Siddhartha. Milestone later reissued the disc under its own imprint in 2011, and both editions feature what was a fairly strong transfer for the time with the shifting aspect ratios (ranging from 1.33:1 to 2.35:1) contained within a 4:3 frame. A restoration of the film made its HD debut in late 2017 from Gaumont in France, with only a non-English-friendly featurette as a major extra but with English subtitles for the main feature; more desirable is the 2018 edition from Arrow Video's Arrow Academy imprint, as separate Blu-ray or DVD editions. The transfer looks superb, with accurate and nicely rendered colors for the painting shots and far more detail than the SD iterations could have ever dreamed of providing, and the LPCM French audio with optional English subtitles is also pristine, especially when it comes to the sparing but brash score by Georges Auric. Chief among the extras is the full, BAFTA-winning Visit to Picasso (20m24s), which offers an interesting point of The Mystery of Picassocomparison since (a) it spends its opening section providing background on the painter, (b) is shot only in black-and-white, and (c) has a far more whimsical tone since you can see Picasso standing in front of the camera painting on the glass. The quality of the short is also mostly excellent apart from some age-related fluctuations in The Mystery of Picassosome of the painting shots. La Garoupe (9m30s), a fascinating little 1937 home movie by fellow legendary artist Man Ray, features some early color photography of Picasso and friends savoring food, the ocean, and cigarettes galore in Antibes. "Picasso My Father" (25m30s) is the featurette from the Gaumont release with Picasso's daughter, Maya, chatting in depth about growing up around such artists as Clouzot, Yves Montand, and Simone Signoret, providing a snapshot of how this film grew out of a rich artistic community across Europe. Of course, the best material here concerns her father at work on this film, even if he didn't think of it as such; the warm camaraderie seen in the main feature was quite real. Also ported over from the Gaumont release is a brief restoration demonstration (1m59s) showing how the ravages of time were omitted from the film's negative. The reversible sleeve features a new design by maarko phntm, while the first pressing also includes a booklet with a new essay by author and illustrator John Coulthart.

Reviewed on January 22, 2018.