“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
– Pablo Picasso
Few films come with a pedigree as spotted as THE PICASSO SUMMER. Some names that were directly or indirectly associated with the movie include artist Pablo Picasso, author Ray Bradbury, French directors Francois Truffaut and Serge Bourguignon, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond as well as renowned animators Wes Herschensohn, Faith & John Hubley, composer Michel Legrand and songstress Barbra Streisand. Not to mention producer and comedian Bill Cosby, Spanish bullfighting legend Luis Miguel Dominguín, actor Yul Brynner and the film’s stars, Albert Finney and Yvette Mimieux. Now that I’ve hopefully got your attention I suggest you proceed with caution. The story of how THE PICASSO SUMMER got made and was shelved for years is fascinating, funny and sad. This is a film that deserves to be rediscovered but it’s also a tragic reminder of 1960s Hollywood excess and it left a lot of battered egos and unrealized dreams in its wake.
The film’s premise is simple enough; a struggling architect (Albert Finney) from San Francisco and his wife (Yvette Mimieux) attend a swinging party in the city during the “Summer of Love” where actor Theodore Marcuse appears as just another stoned party guest. The couple isn’t impressed with the happening crowd that has gathered to celebrate a new up-and-coming pop artist who paints the alphabet. The party sends Albert Finney’s character, once an aspiring artist himself, into a spiral of self-doubt and depression that leaves his accommodating wife confused and forlorn.
After a night of vivid dreams, Finney suddenly awakes with an unusual idea. Why not take a spontaneous trip to Paris and seek out his favorite artist, Pablo Picasso, to thank him for all the inspiration and joy he’s given him over the years? His wife, who is eager to escape their humdrum existence, agrees to accompany him and the attractive couple set out on a summer adventure in Europe. While trying to make contact with the reclusive Picasso they bump into a cast of unusual characters that lead them in various directions but as the saying goes, the journey is the destination.
Does the premise sound a little ridiculous? It is. But it’s also incredibly charming. There’s a naiveté to the proceedings that’s both sweet and endearing. But THE PICASSO SUMMER is also a surprisingly inventive film and a lost love letter to Picasso himself. It celebrates Picasso’s work and his shared ideas about the artistic process while attempting to ask bigger questions about the impermanence of life and the eternalness of art. It isn’t entirely successful at tackling these big themes but it deserves credit for attempting such a risky task to begin with. The picture also happens to contain some of the most creative and uniquely animated sequences I’ve ever come across in any feature film. And that is no small feat. Ever wonder what Picasso’s monumental murals for “War” and “Peace” might look like if they were animated? THE PICASSO SUMMER answers that question and does so beautifully.
THE PICASSO SUMMER was based on a vignette titled “In a Season of Calm Weather” written by Ray Bradbury that originally appeared in a 1957 issue of Playboy magazine. In 1967 Bradbury was asked to adapt his story into a half-hour television special but the project evolved into a full-length feature film with a lot of promise. At the time Bradbury was already a respected author and the critically acclaimed director Francois Truffaut had turned one of Bradbury’s stories into a highly successful film: FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966).
Bradbury, along with producers Bruce Campbell, Roy Silver and most notably comedian Bill Cosby (who had just launched his own film production team) managed to convince Pablo Picasso to make a guest appearance in their upcoming film while Bradbury reached out to his friend, Francois Truffaut, about directing it. At first Truffaut seemed enthusiastic about the project and the possibility of working with Picasso but after reading Bradbury’s script he told the author that he wasn’t interested and in a written exchange said, “To be completely frank, since we have always been frank with each other, I must tell you that for me this detailed treatment fails to capture the inventive originality of your short story.” This should have been a warning to all. If Truffaut doesn’t like your script it probably needs some work.
After Truffaut refused to jump on board the Oscar-winning director Serge Bourguignon was asked to take the reigns and British actor Albert Finney, along with Yvette Mimieux, were cast in the leading roles. Picasso’s friend, the Spanish matador Luis Miguel Dominguín, was also cast in the film playing himself. Dominguín was a longtime friend of Picasso and a legendary ladies man who attended lots of parties, slept with lots of actresses and befriended many celebrities. During filming, Dominguín relayed messages between the reclusive artist and the film crew. He even managed to convince Yul Brynner to make a cameo appearance in the movie.
Things began to go wrong almost immediately once the cast and crew landed in Europe. Director Serge Bourguignon was determined to give the film his own unique spin and wanted more creative control over the script, while author Ray Bradbury found the director’s changes wrongheaded. Then chaos apparently broke loose when it was discovered that Luis Miguel Dominguín was sleeping with Yul Brynner’s wife. As a result, Picasso, who was also friendly with Brynner, decided he wanted nothing to do with the film anymore.
Producers struggled to find a Picasso look-alike to take the artist’s place while Bradbury and Bourguignon exchanged long-distance barbs. According to producer Wes Herschensohn, “Directorial liberty resulted in a quiet feud between Serge and Bradbury, in which Ray, back home in Los Angeles, managed to vent his hostility by shouting lustily, ‘I hate Serge Bourgignon!’ whenever the urge hit him, which was quite often.”
When the film was finally completed a screening was set up with director Serge Bourguignon, Ray Bradbury and the producers in attendance. After the film ended and the lights came up, Bradbury reportedly turned towards director Serge Bourguignon and shouted, “Fire that man!” And producer Bill Cosby, who was no doubt fed up with everything, announced to the room that “I don’t need you, people, to waste my money. I’m going to go waste it myself!”
Naturally, Bourguignon was enraged so he attacked Bradbury and the two men had to be forcefully separated. In the end, producers decided to bring in another director, Robert Sallin, to re-shoot many scenes while they were busy having Bourguignon’s original film edited into oblivion. The irony is that they wanted a more commercial and less artistic product to sell to the general public. In other words, they wanted to take Picasso out of THE PICASSO SUMMER.
We’ll probably never get to see Serge Bourguignon’s original version of the film, which may even include Yul Brynner’s cameo unless an uncut print of the director’s effort is hidden somewhere in the Warner vaults. But the finished product hints at the movie’s experimental nature and artistic liberty. Between the flash cuts, still frames, rapid montages, and abundant split screens it’s still possible to get a glimpse of the director’s imaginative approach to the film.
The beautifully animated sequences that bring Picasso’s artistic ideas to life also survived the editing room. These scenes were conceived and directed by producer Wes Herschensohn, who worked with Disney early in his career and executed by the Oscar-winning animation team of Faith & John Hubley. There are three animated sequences in total and together they make up about 30 minutes of the film’s 90 minute running time. The most remarkable animation in the picture probably follows the controversial bullfight that takes place towards the end. It depicts matador Luis Miguel Dominguín’s encounter with a real bull as he teaches Albert Finney’s character how to kill it. This violent and unrelenting scene isn’t for the faint of heart and finally dissolves into a powerfully animated montage of Picasso’s numerous bullfighting paintings.
THE PICASSO SUMMER also boasts some wonderful location shots of San Francisco as well as the French and Spanish countryside, while Michel Legrand’s score is exceptional. Speaking of the film’s wonderful score, there seems to be some confusion over Barbra Streisand’s contributions to it. Streisand did record Legrand’s theme for the film titled, “Summer Me, Winter Me” but it didn’t appear in the original movie and wasn’t released until 1974 as part of her The Way We Were LP.
Unfortunately, the film also suffered a delayed fate. Once changes had been made to the script and editing was complete, producers still weren’t happy with the final product that was eventually finished in 1969. THE PICASSO SUMMER was immediately shelved and never given a proper release in the U.S. theaters. In 1972 the film was sold to television and finally debuted on American TV but its dismal outcome didn’t end there. Director Serge Bourguignon, who had wowed audiences with his acclaimed 1962 film SUNDAYS AND CYBELE, was apparently so disappointed with the outcome of THE PICASSO SUMMER that he walked away from Hollywood and never made another film. In the end, Bourguignon’s fate was immeasurably linked to the fate of his film’s protagonist and the movie’s underlying questions about artistic integrity and the search for something more meaningful in life ultimately went unanswered.
The movie suffers due to its disjointed narrative and a lack of overall cohesion but it’s still a fascinating watch that offers audiences a unique look at Picasso’s work and captures the overall sense of discontent that was felt by many in the late ‘60s. It may not be a perfect picture but I honestly believe that THE PICASSO SUMMER is ripe for rediscovery, particularly for anyone who is interested in animation and how to cleverly incorporate it within a live-action film. The movie is currently available from the Warner Archive but it hasn’t been re-mastered so the picture quality suffers occasionally. This is undoubtedly due to the film’s sketchy production history and I have to assume that it’s nearly impossible to find any original footage to restore since it was butchered for television. But overall this is a great looking movie and the sound quality is excellent.
Around the same time that Albert Finney made THE PICASSO SUMMER, he also appeared in one of my favorite romances, Stanley Donen ‘s TWO FOR THE ROAD (1967), with Audrey Hepburn. Both of these films feature a dissatisfied Finney traveling around Europe while he struggles to come to terms with his troubled marriage and personal ennui. The two films would make a perfect double feature, and although TWO FOR THE ROAD is undoubtedly the stronger film, THE PICASSO SUMMER contains its own quirky charm that should appeal to more daring audiences.
“To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture.” – Pablo Picasso
The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury by Sam Weller
Conversations With Ray Bradbury by Ray Bradbury & Steven L. Aggelis
Yul Brynner: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua
Resurrection in Cannes: the making of The Picasso Summer by Wes Herschensohn
Truffaut: A Biography by Antoine De Baecque & Serge Toubiana
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published on Turner Classic Movies official blog at TCM.com on April 12, 2012