Big Eyes – Art imitating life

Tim Burton’s Big Eyes is understated in terms of the director’s usual standards, but despite some minor flaws Glen Falkenstein still finds it a little bit unreal.

“Why are their eyes so big?”

The New York Times reviled the Big Eyes paintings for being too “kitsch,” while art-lovers, including film director Tim Burton, didn’t mind being a little gaudy or sentimental. The paintings and the film itself are pure Burton – colourful, extravagant and literally larger than life.

Artist Margaret (Amy Adams) arrives in San Francisco with her daughter, meeting and shortly thereafter marrying shrewd salesman Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). Keane passes off Margaret’s “Big Eyes” as his own, making a fortune while forcing his wife to paint and keep their secret, even hiding it from her daughter.

Based on true events, Burton is not the first director to give Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) free reign to occupy most of our attention as the charming and “sadistic ogre,” bullying Margaret into producing hundreds of paintings while he makes a name from her work. Adams is a naturally sympathetic heroine; the relationship between the two is the backbone of the film, not leaving much space for any of the smaller, but by no means less interesting, characters. Terence Stamp has a minor, underdeveloped role as a prominent art critic, sharing one key scene with Waltz.

Suffering slightly from narrative leaps and an ending more farcical in tone than the rest of the film, Big Eyes is not nearly as whimsical or illusory as Burton’sEdward Scissorhands or Alice in Wonderland. Like Margaret’s paintings, Big Eyes hovers visually between the colourful, exaggerated realism we expect from Burton and pure fantasy, as Margaret herself begins to see the eyes on passers-by and in her own reflection.

Burton’s biopic is his answer to those who criticise his films as too gaudy or overstated. Stamp’s critic won’t tolerate the “Big Eyes” for their being kitsch and populist, but like so many of Burton’s (and Margaret’s) successes, this is exactly what people want, what excites them and what they will line up to see.

Big Eyes, understated by Burton’s standards, is no different. The film is for both the director and its heroine, an affirmation that in imitating something authentic and life-like, whether in art or film, it pays to be a little unreal.

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