Big Eyes

As usual when P. suggests going to see a film, I’d looked at a few reviews beforehand to decide whether I was interested. In this case what I’d read hadn’t made me super-enthusiastic, but Tim Burton’s latest film Big Eyes turned out (for once) to be better than expected. The film had received a fair bit of praise, especially for Amy Adams’ performance, but also a lot of criticism, most of which was centred on two aspects. The first of these was that it wasn’t sufficiently political, and that the sexism of 1950s America and the domestic abuse and denigration suffered by the main character didn’t receive enough attention and weren’t taken seriously.

(details below)

Matt Brennan, for instance, writing in Slant Magazine says that :

[…] by hewing to biographical template, the script evades nuanced engagement with the notion that “art” must be unpopular, political, and manly, preferring instead to lay blame for Margaret’s underappreciation at the feet of her singularly shitty husband. Big Eyes thus succeeds in whittling down the vigorous feminism of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which argues that systemic discrimination against women leads to the devaluation of their talent and their art, until the ideologies that shape Margaret’s tortured career vanish from view. The raft of supple notions shadowing the edges of the frame—about highbrow and lowbrow, the canon and consumer culture, the gendered definition of “art”—is rich with possibility, yet Big Eyes never quite musters the courage to confront these difficult questions head-on.

Now, if you’re looking for an exploration at the level of A Room of One’s Own of the sexism inherent in a patriarchal society – or any other sort of serious statement about art or culture – then this is not the film for you, but I doubt if anyone who’s ever seen a Tim Burton film would have any such expectations. That said, I think the film says enough about sexism in the art world (where “Sadly, people don’t buy lady art”), and in 1950s America generally. When Margaret goes looking for a job, the interviewer asks her if her husband approves of her working, and when she feels guilty about all the lying she’s been doing and goes to a Catholic priest for advice, he tells her the man is the head of the household and suggests she just trust in her husband’s better judgement. Not that a Catholic priest is likely to be the best person to consult about gender politics, or about lying for that matter, but still. And as far as the domestic abuse goes, we’re shown quite clearly the extent to which Margaret is pressurised, manipulated and even threatened occasionally, and the terrible effect it all has on her. But this is a complex relationship so we’re also shown how she goes along with the deceit for years, up to the point where it becomes too much for her.

The second main point of criticism is the difference in acting style between Amy Adams, who plays Margaret in a subtle and serious manner, and all the other main characters who are described as one-dimensional and cartoonesque. Here I simply have to disagree. Amy Adams’ performance is certainly the best of the film, but to say it was so much subtler or more realistic than any of the others would be an exaggeration. I think some critics are confusing a difference in the characters’ personalities with a difference in acting styles. Margaret is a quiet, sensitive, emotional and artistic person while her husband is an extreme example of that particular variety of human being known as the salesman – and they really are one-dimensional and cartoonesque! Neither of them is played in a way that I would describe as particularly subtle, but judging by their story these people must have been extreme and exaggerated characters in real life. And when has Tim Burton ever been subtle anyway?

OK, the strange story of these people’s strange lives could easily have served as material for a serious drama, which might have been a lot more interesting than this film and which some other director may yet make one day. I must also admit that I didn’t find Big Eyes nearly as good as Ed Wood, the Tim Burton film with which it is most often compared. This one is light, fluffy, entertaining, kitsch, sentimental, melodramatic, totally o.t.t. and generally a bit of a ‘feel-good movie’ – and all those qualities match perfectly with its subject matter. One fairly critical reviewer on IMDb said that it “parallels the artwork of Margaret Keane in an unintentional manner”. I don’t know how unintentional it was, but I agree with the rest of that statement and for me it exemplifies exactly what made the film work. So, not a great masterpiece and certainly not the best of Tim Burton, but well worth the trip to the cinema.



title Big Eyes
director Tim Burton
released 2014
actors Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz
language English
subtitles français
seen 26/04/2015, at the cinema
further information IMDb


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