We should have tired of Anthony Hopkins’ show-boating performances by now, but he’s just too darn good at them. Surprising us with each new role (Nixon was at least that), Hopkins radiates the freshness of a previously unknown talent whenever he appears on screen.
The shrewdly evil Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs and the quietly desperate butler in Remains of the Day are just two of the memorable characters Hopkins has played. Add Pablo Picasso to that list. Once again joining the filmmaking team of Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala, Hopkins stars as the legendary licentious artist in Surviving Picasso. With the role, Hopkins takes on his own raging bull, risking audience alienation in each scene. But because Hopkins charms us just as Picasso did women, we never want to turn away. Bounding into doorways with a shout and arms raised high into the air, Hopkins’ Picasso turns every room he enters into a party.
Most of that fun involves women. Having driven his first wife to insanity and harboring an ex-lover (Julianne Moore) who is equally devastated, Picasso consumes women voraciously and spits out whatever is left. In recognition, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala includes a wonderfully metaphorical sequence in a scorpion-infected house.
Hopkins charms us just as Picasso did women.
Trying not to get stung is Francoise Gilot, a young Parisian art student who had an affair with the 62-year-old artist when she was 22. As played by stage actress Natasha McElhone, however, Francoise is not a naive coed. When her grandmother warns her of the many women Picasso has crushed, Francoise replies, “Do you really think I would let myself be destroyed by any man – even if it is Picasso?”
Francoise’s struggle to uphold this claim makes up most of the film. As it follows the couple’s 10-year affair, the movie unfolds in the manner of a psychological thriller rather than that of a historical portrait (though the sumptuous locales and rich cinematography of a Merchant-Ivory production are still here).
What gets left behind is any insightful observations about the art of painting itself. Little attention is paid to either Picasso’s or Francoise’s work, even though it would have been particularly interesting to learn more about hers. Instead, Surviving Picasso is more concerned with the canvas of the mind.