January 10, 2015 3:13:46 am
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston
The eyes have it. It’s easy to see what attracted Burton to this film, quite different from his usual genre of dark, quirky horror films. It has to be the haunting, sad, forlorn eyes that Margaret Keane (Adams) gave to the paintings of waif-like children she drew. Surely, those kids knew and had seen things we couldn’t, or at least Margaret had.
Eerily, Margaret also sees these eyes at times, randomly, on people she encounters in the midst of a painting spree. Whatever the eyes may have meant for her in her paintings — and the film is not very clear on that subject — these are horrific on real people.
The rest of Burton’s film is straightforward, despite Waltz, with his crazy energy. He is flamboyant, a show-off, a fake; she is sincere, subdued and solemn. And we disappointingly don’t see the other side of either.
At least it is easy to understand that Walter may have built such a grand facade of lies that he may no longer be able to see past them. However, Margaret’s compulsions are never as clear.
So Burton’s film is based on the real-life story of Margaret Keane, who in the 1960s painted hundreds of those ‘Big Eyes’ paintings that became as popularly adored as critically slammed. Fittingly, the film begins with an Andy Warhol quote that says that those paintings must have been good. “If they were bad, so many wouldn’t have bought them.” Quite like Warhol, Walter Keane was not averse to the commercialisation of Margaret’s art, with those paintings surfacing as postcards, prints, cards, and anywhere else he could put them.
Trouble begins when Walter, himself a “struggling artist”, starts claiming those paintings as his own. The first time it almost slips out in the middle of a sales pitch, but those were also times when a woman’s place was firmly at home, and Walter convinces Margaret that it’s better for both of them if the lie continues.
Having walked out of one marriage already with a daughter in tow, Margaret is eager to make this union work. Plus, Walter is cheery, courteous and nice to her daughter. Margaret is also convinced by his arguments that not only would her work get sold more with his name on it, but that he also has the requisite charm to sell paintings that she obviously lacks.
Burton picturises this domestic drama in bright colours, as well as in dark studios, with their mounting claustrophobia. He also tries to portray this as a feminist drama, with Margaret essentially fighting a system where women don’t count for much. But his heart is really not in it.
The debate between pop art and what is seen as serious art, and the tightly knit circle of critics and gallery owners, is equally half-hearted.
In the end, Big Eyes works more as a story of the couple than a story of their times. There too, it’s a story strangely lacking fireworks, with Adams putting up no real fight to her treacherous husband.
Even an ordinary marriage lends itself to more, as many would attest — particularly when fighting over credits. The ‘I’s always have it.
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