In San Francisco in the 1950s, Margaret was a woman trying to make it on her own after leaving her husband with only her daughter and her paintings. She meets gregarious ladies’ man and fellow painter Walter Keane in a park while she was struggling to make an impact with her drawings of children with big eyes. The two quickly become a pair with outgoing Walter selling their paintings and quiet Margaret holed up at home painting even more children with big eyes. But Walter’s actually selling her paintings as his own. A clash of financial success and critical failure soon sends Margaret reeling in her life of lies. With Walter still living the high life, Margaret’s going to have to try making it on her own again and re-claiming her name and her paintings.
My opinion on “Big Eyes”
“All these copies… you’re like Warhol!
Nah, Warhol’s like me. That fruitfly stole my act! “
Tim Burton is known for the surreal-like film “Edward Scissorhands” and other strange curiosities such as “Beetlejuice” and “Mars Attack!“. This time he follows a more realistic path with this biographical film “Big Eyes” about the sad life of Margaret Keane. This artist from the early 60s is responsible for countless families to have several paintings (or copies) hanging in their house, with on it a sad child with a pair of unreal looking big eyes (usually with a tear). At first glance, this was just tacky “Holly Hobbie”-like teen art. But the truth is astonishing and brilliant at the same time. All the paintings of Margaret Keane were allegedly created by her husband Walter, who’s a smooth talker but wasn’t as smooth with a brush. That’s the baffling part of the whole story. The brilliant part is how this show-off managed to set up the merchandising and turned this “teen room portraits” into a commercial success. In terms of marketing, he was a forerunner. But at the same time he turned his wife into a individual without any identity or personality. A housewife trapped in a dusty attic where she produces paintings like a conveyer belt and signed them with the surname of her husband. Eventually, you may consider this as the most subtle art theft of all time.
The participation of Amy “American Hustle” Adams as the shy, introverted and somewhat naive Margaret and Christoph “Django Unchained” Waltz as the cunning charmer Walter Keane, is a successful combination. Both the spirit of the 50s and 60s as the scenery is conveyed brilliantly : the typical neighborhoods with their close-cropped lawns, the beautiful vintage cars, the fashion of those days and also the naivety in a sterile and perfect looking family-society. Fortunately for Walter the word “emancipation” hadn’t been invented yet and women at the time were neatly classified in the “home-garden-kitchen tool” section. Would he perform this stunt in modern times, he probably would be the one walking around with unreal big eyes (blue that is). Amy Adams is perfect for this role as the fragile and submissive wife (who radiates an “Marilyn Monroe” aura at times) but is also more emancipated than one would think. At that time it wasn’t so obvious for a woman to leave her husband. Schultz waltzed through the film like a big smiling Dick Van Dyke. Being a shrewd businessman he builds an empire by abusing his wife’s talent.
It’s the performances that make it still a pleasure to watch this film. For the rest is this story about deception and (essentially) abuse, rather unimpressive. I have no doubt that Burton securely respected the biographical accuracy. In itself nothing’s wrong with that, but the end result is just a leisurely and quiet rippling story. Nothing that will immediately blow you away, except the trial in the end. Although I briefly felt like watching an old-fashioned episode of “I Love Lucy” and had my doubts whether this part of the movie really reflected the true story. This entertaining spectacle, with Walter trying to defend himself, is a comic and theatrical one-man show. A demonstration of the narcissism and the invulnerable attitude that featured Walter Keane.
However, I didn’t receive an answer on one key question after watching this film. Indeed it’s obvious how Margaret was manipulated and deceived in her life, not to say oppressed and effaced in a psychological way. But in the end I still didn’t know why she painted those ridiculously large and sad,eerie eyes. Besides quotes like “Things can be seen in eyes“, “They’re the windows of the soul” and the fictional story of children suffering during the war by Walter, there’s no really satisfactory answer. Was it a childhood trauma or was it because of the eyes of her daughter (Delaney Raye / Madeleine Arthur) that made her think of this gimmick? But despite this lack of explanation, it’s still a fascinating film.