If there's a basic lesson to be gleaned from Merchant-Ivory's misbegotten Surviving Picasso, it's that the further a biopic gets from an artist's work, the less compelling his or her personal history is going to appear. In that case, the moment the filmmakers found they were limited to a widely reviled Arianna Huffington book and fake Picasso paintings, they probably should have thrown in the towel. A frustrating study in divided attentions, Carlos Saura's Goya In Bordeaux alternates between eye-popping recreations of Francisco Goya's nightmarish panoramas and stultifying reminiscences about his life in Spain. While there's no doubt that one part informed the other, Saura's passion for realizing Goya's vibrant tableaux through exacting cinematic technique far eclipses his interest in meting out the usual biographical details. Shot almost entirely on a controlled studio soundstage, the plastic setting continually morphs from a colorful dreamscape to an ornate shell, depending on the context. In 1828, during the last days of his life, the 82-year-old Goya (superbly played by former Buñuel regular Francisco Rabal) remains haunted by events nearly four decades earlier, when he lost his hearing and his art took a significantly darker turn. As he tells the story to his daughter (Daphne Fernández), Goya essentially holds a dialogue with his younger self (a less impressive José Coronado), recalling how his fiery romance with the Duchess of Alba (Maribel Verdú) was tragically cut short by a jealous Spanish queen. The painter's awakening to human tyranny led to a flourish of his most notable and incendiary artworks, including a series of engravings called "The Disasters Of War." Like no film since Paul Schrader's Mishima, Goya In Bordeaux uses startlingly expressive theatrical design and lighting effects to conjure the brilliant fantasies that spring from an artist's head. Much of the credit for these sequences belongs to legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor), whose bold color palette and exquisite compositions also took some of the starch out of Saura's dance films, Tango and Flamenco. But whenever Saura pulls away from the canvas and returns to more conventional chamber drama, Goya In Bordeaux shrinks from a visionary spectacle to a suffocating bore.