Directed and produced by Tim Burton, Big Eyes is based on the true story of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who was one of the most successful painters 1950s and early 1960s. The artist earned staggering notoriety by revolutionizing the commercialisation and accessibility of popular art with his enigmatic paintings of waifs with big eyes. The truth would eventually be discovered though: Keane’s were actually not created by him at all, but by his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams). The Keanes, it seemed, had been living a lie that had grown to gigantic proportions. Big Eyes centers on Margaret’s awakening as an artist, the phenomenal success of her paintings, and her tumultuous relationship with her husband, who was catapulted to international fame while taking credit for her work. (synopsis via Coming Soon)
It’s hard to tell what is more disturbing about the lives of Walter and Margaret Keane, whose story is the centrepiece of Tim Burton’s latest film Big Eyes.
That they created art peopled by characters for whom the word “creepy” seems to have been solely created – granted these paintings are hugely popular so I am possibly alone in that assessment of their appeal – or that Walter happily usurped the credit for the creation of this highly-succeessful art, allowing himself to be feted by the world at large for paintings that he had nothing to do with.
As Todd McCarthy points out in the Hollywood Reporter review of Big Eyes, the art itself is less important than what the film has to say about the gender politics of the 1950s and ’60s, and the willingness of one person to subsume themselves to another in the interests of “love”:
“… the contemporary view of the sexual and emotional politics of the relationship is considerably more devastating. Walter’s exuberant personality could take over nearly any room and Margaret is far more retiring; all the same, her acceptance of his appropriation of exclusive creative responsibility for her work quietly speaks volumes about certain societal imbalances of the time. Faced with scorn for changing her style to the Modigliani-like portraits, Margaret quietly ventures that, “People don’t take women’s art seriously,” and passively shrinks from the stage while invisibly cranking out paintings like a one-woman factory. Whether or not to take Margaret Keane seriously is one matter. But very few men would have willingly vanished into the woodwork the way she does.”
Scripted by the same team that gave us Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flint and Man on the Moon, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Big Eyes has the eccentric storytelling persona that seems to characterise the highly imaginative and oddball-dark films of Tim Burton, a man who is adept at summoning great drama out of the most unusual and often unsettling of stories.
While McCarthy concedes that Big Eyes “is not as profoundly strange or resonantly personal as Ed Wood, nor is there anything as magnificent here as Martin Landau’s turn as Bela Lugosi”, it is still a uniformly well-acted, beautifully produced and skillyfully-directed tale of what happens when a dysfunctional relationship subsumes and subverts the personalities, hopes and aspirations of those involved in it, and gives rise to a lie too big to curtail or placate.
Big Eyes opens on Christmas Day in USA and 19 February 2015 in Australia.
Vulture has revealed the two songs that Lana del Ray has contributed to the soundtrack for Big Eyes and they are every bit as otherworldly beautiful and emotionally- evocative as you’d expect, perfect companions for the film …