In abandoning India and Anglo-Indian subjects, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory lost the dry and delicate touch that made Shakespeare Wallah and Heat and Dust so memorable. However, they have gained a vast following with glossy films of E.M. Forster’s low-key novels, in which they vulgarize the issues and overdecorate the sets. Their Room with a View, Maurice, and Howards End offer souped-up versions of Edwardian life: flower-showy gardens, fancy horses from the royal stables, and more mahogany paneling than the Connaught Hotel—“Ralph Lauren’s England,” someone said. It all evokes Galsworthy rather than Forster.
The team has recently moved on to biography, to two very dull films about two very great men, Jefferson and Picasso. Illustrious achievements do not interest Merchant and Ivory so much as sexual relationships, especially ones to which they can give a prurient, voyeuristic spin. Jefferson in Paris appalled Jeffersonians by portraying him—on highly controversial evidence—as the philandering lover of a black slave girl. Surviving Picasso is no less dismaying for its attempt to demonize the artist for his supposedly manipulative and sadistic treatment of Françoise Gilot, his mistress from 1943 to 1953, and thus attract a feminist audience.
Surviving Picasso draws on an even more controversial source than the Jefferson movie. It is supposedly based on Arianna Stassinopoulos’s hostile scissors-and-paste biography Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, a book which Ivory claims to be “marvelously detailed and researched,” although, as he must surely know, scholars gave it universally terrible reviews because it is nothing of the sort. (One scholar, Lydia Gasman, had her lawyers discuss with Stassinopoulos’s publisher a possible suit against the author for plagiarism.) In fact, Ivory’s film is all too evidently inspired by Françoise Gilot’s revelatory Life with Picasso and other memories which, to her eternal regret, she allowed Stassinopoulos to share. Merchant and Ivory had originally approached Françoise Gilot in the hope of obtaining film rights; they were met with an adamant refusal, and so had no option but to sign up Stassinopoulos and pretend that their film is based on her book.
Deny it though they might, Surviving Picasso follows Françoise Gilot’s pages, except that it trivializes them. After reading the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s simplistic, soap-opera-ish script, Françoise and her son, Claude, who administers the Picasso estate, were horror-stricken and took legal steps to stop the film from being made. Claude was not able to do so, but he managed to refuse Merchant and Ivory permission to show any of Picasso’s works—an action that Ivory likes to impute to Claude’s supposed rivalry: “People in France say that…Claude Picasso himself wanted to make a film about his father so that we were really coming on his territory.” There is no truth whatsoever to this assertion. Françoise thinks they would have won their case if they had decided to proceed with it, but the process would have been too long and costly. She managed to have her …