Directors: please stop trying to depict “genius”

In an age of #MeToo, Antonia Banderas’ Picasso strolls manfully in the opposite direction, portraying the artist’s priapism a good thing in and of itself.

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National Geographic, the American digital network that is majority-owned by 21st Century Fox, serves up quite the mix of weird macho stuff. Tune in expecting picturesque footage of waterfalls, or convoluted journeys to newly discovered Amazon tribes, and you’ll likely be disappointed; a typical night involves shows about air crash investigations and documentaries with titles such as Nazi Megastructures.

It also has a historical drama series, Genius (8pm, 23 April), now in its second season. The first time around, Geoffrey Rush, with hair like an ice cream cone, starred as Einstein. This time, we’ve got Antonio Banderas pretending to be Picasso. The marketing people are – honestly – plugging this with the tagline: “He was a piece of work.” In their ad, Banderas appears with brightly coloured stripes emblazoned across his cheekbones, as if the face painter at a children’s party had been unable to restrain herself when she saw him strolling by.

In a way, you have to admire it. While the Tate Modern director Frances Morris has – entirely ridiculously – found herself, in the wake of #MeToo, having to defend the gallery’s current Picasso show with its focus on work depicting his young lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, Genius strolls manfully in the opposite direction, portraying the artist’s priapism as all of a piece with his creativity, a good thing in and of itself. Better to be endlessly randy than to resemble Picasso’s friend Carles Casagemas (Robert Sheehan), whose impotence brings him to shoot himself in the head. The bedroom is life; sheets that remain untumbled are the equivalent of death.

Marie-Thérèse, incidentally, is played by the model Poppy Delevingne, and she’s about as sexy as cabbage, or a fuse box. Still, even in her prim little hat, she’s more likely to quicken the pulse than Picasso. How his women – here is Dora Maar (Samantha Colley) and here is Françoise Gilot (Clémence Poésy) – don’t collapse into hysterics at the merest glimpse of his wig is a mystery to me. Think Bruno Ganz as Hitler in Downfall, only longer and greyer.

Though seemingly irresistible to film-makers, the concept of “genius” inevitably presents them with major problems. So, too, does painting. How to depict the creative process? How to make what is inward and largely indescribable appear before us, vividly comprehensible? A far-off look will appear in Picasso’s eyes, irrespective of what is going on around him. The Nazis may be invading France, or a woman may be noisily reaching orgasm just above him; either way, you know that in the next second, he will be staring at his paintbrush as if he is Indiana Jones and it is the Ark of the Covenant.

Add to this the excess of castanets and guitars that clog the soundtrack like music in a cheap tapas bar and – olé! – the result is unendurable. Banderas is – I’d almost forgotten – a good actor. But even he can’t make his lines sound convincing. “I need something new,” he mutters, gazing across a Parisian brasserie. He means a woman, which in turn means fresh inspiration. For a few moments, though, you half wonder if his poulet à l’estragon or whatever it is that he’s eating has simply been served to him cold.

On BBC Two comes a new dating show (words I hoped never to write) called Love in the Countryside (9pm, 2 May), in which Sara Cox, having gathered up any stray double entendres she had left over from the last series of The Great Pottery Throw Down, attempts to find (often urban) mates for lonely farming folk. It’s so buttock-clenching that having put yourself through an hour of it, you might as well have been sitting on a combine harvester all day long.

Listening to a young woman called Francesca talk to Pete, a 52-year-old divorcee who runs a 350-acre Yorkshire dairy farm, I thought I might be sick. She would, she told him, need her very own all-in-one boiler suit, the better to protect her from the “mooeys’” pee. Disappointingly, Pete didn’t blanch at this. She was one of three dates he has now chosen to come and see his farm – at which point, let us pray, the cow pats will hit both the fan and her boiler suit, and he will come rapidly to his senses. 

Genius: Picasso (National Geographic)
Love in the Countryside (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 04 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right