Big Eyes is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film since Ed Wood (1994), to which it feels a companion piece. (It shares the same writers, Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski.) Burton is using his own extraordinary craftsmanship and artistry to tell a story of characters whose work others dismiss as trash. In this case, his subject isn’t a B-movie director but an artist called “Keane,” who painted ghoulish and naive pictures of women and children with very big eyes.
Unlike the supercilious New York Times critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp) who dismisses Keane’s painting out of hand as the quintessence of kitsch, Burton is enchanted by it. He opens the film with a double-edged quote by Andy Warhol. “If it were so bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”
At the heart of Big Eyes is a gigantic fraud. The outside world believed that Keane’s work was done by Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) when, in fact, his wife Margaret (Amy Adams) was responsible for everything.
The reasons for the fraud are complex. In typically quirky and delicate style, Burton is probing away at such matters as cultural snobbery, sexism, the predicament of married women in late 1950s America, and artistic jealousy.
Big Eyes is gorgeously shot in widescreen colour. The San Francisco-set scenes, with the Golden Gate Bridge and the steep, dizzying streets to the fore, can’t help but rekindle memories of Alfred Hitchcock Vertigo. Margaret as portrayed by Amy Adams is more Doris Day than Kim Novak. She is pert, demure, and with blonde hair. This is a far more passive character from her hardboiled con artist in American Hustle but she plays the part beautifully.
Margaret is very conscious that, as a middle-class divorcee with a child, she has little status in the patriarchal society in which she lives. Arriving in the big city, she is naive and bewildered - and doesn’t even know what espresso is. At the same time, she has a steely determination that enables her to strike off on her own in the first place and to dedicate herself to painting her very strange pictures.
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Christoph Waltz is both funny and creepy as Walter, the real estate salesman trying to convince the world - and himself - that he is an artist. He has the patter and looks the part, dressing like Gene Kelly in An American In Paris. For all his charm, there is a sense of desperation about him. He can’t escape his own inner mediocrity.
In Burton’s fantasy films, the visual style can sometimes seem overwhelming. The costumes, make-up, production-design and camerawork are all so extravagant that the human dimension risks becoming lost. In Big Eyes, the director’s expressionistic tendencies are kept in check. This is very recognisably a Tim Burton movie but it is quieter and more grounded than many of its predecessors.
Burton satirises his characters but does so with affection. He is also very even-handed. He sees the absurdity in everyone. It would have been very easy to depict Walter as the villain - the self-deluded chauvinist with no aesthetic taste or talent who bullies his wife into believing that the public simply won’t accept work by a “lady artist.” Burton, just as he did with Ed Wood, treats him instead with at least a measure of affection, and respects his passion for art, which at least is unfeigned We can’t help but feel a sympathy for him when he is being sneered at by Canaday or by the modernist art dealer Ruben (Jason Schwartzman) across the road.
Big Eyes pays attention to the role of the media in boosting the reputations of artists like Keane. One of the reasons the work sells is that the seedy local journalist (the film’s less than reliable narrator) Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) sees an angle in writing about it.
There are layers and layers of irony here. Walter goes to extreme lengths to defend the reputation of “his” paintings, which are in fact done by someone else. “What is wrong with the lowest common denominator? It is “what this country is built on,” he protests at one stage. He is in deadly earnest. Walter may be a talentless hack who hides behind other artists’ names but he has a genius for marketing.
“People don’t care if it is a copy. They just want art that touches them,” is his philosophy as he churns out thousands of cheap posters which are accessible and affordable to a public who would never go near a conventional, elitist art gallery. Burton, one senses, partly agrees with him. That is the paradox about him as a filmmaker. He makes big budget studio movies for the mass market and yet does so in an utterly distinctive and particular way.
Keane’s paintings do indeed have a quality that intrigues viewers. Margaret can’t explain them beyond saying that they express a part of her being. (That’s why her husband’s decision to steal the credit seems so insensitive.) Walter comes up with a far fetched story about the paintings representing the plight of post-war orphans in Germany. That seems to satisfy the public but, like, the faces of Easter Island statues, these paintings are inscrutable. We have no real sense of why Margaret paints them.
One of the drawbacks of Burton's wry, detached style is that not much seems to be at stake. The film ends with a courtroom battle but Burton plays this as comedy, with Walter at his most self-deluded and buffoonish.
The film shares the characteristics of swirling 1950s melodramas in which long suffering female protagonists played by the likes of Lana Turner or Joan Crawford overcome heartbreak and domestic upheaval to build themselves brave new lives. Burton, though, is too busy observing the foibles of his characters to raise the emotional temperature and give his story the big emotional kick you might find in a Douglas Sirk movie.
If Big Eyes is low key by Tim Burton standards, it is also always a wonderfully offbeat and subversive alternative to the typical artist biopic.