Director Tim Burton’s Big Eyes is more conventional than his usual whimsical productions. Yet it is a highly unsettling movie about the bizarre real life story of wannabe artist Keane and his wife Margaret Ulbrich, who painted portraits of children with humongous eyes that became popular to everyone with bad taste in the late 60s. Big Eyes is an interesting, if glancing look at art, commerce, hype, taste and dishonesty. Oh, and feminism.
We first see Margaret (Amy Adams) leaving her first husband’s home with her young daughter in tow and starting a new life in San Francisco, just as hippies were starting to get hairy, in the late 50s.
It was a brave thing for a married woman to do back then. Margaret starts working at a factory and selling her paintings of big eyed waifs in the park on weekends. Enter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a flamboyant caricature of an artist, complete with beret and striped shirt, who sits in front of blank canvases waiting for inspiration and sells tacky scenes of Montmartre. That these alarming traits were not an immediate red flag for Margaret shows how naive and provincial she was.
Keane encourages Margaret’s art and charms her with his exuberance. They get married, she adopts his last name and starts signing her paintings “Keane”. At some point, someone expresses interest in one of her paintings, he claims he did it himself, and makes a first sale. It works out really well and Keane just decides to claim the paintings as his own.
Soon it is too late to reveal the truth. Margaret goes along with the ruse. Money is pouring in and her new husband is generous to her and sweet to her daughter. He pretends they are a partnership. But as a man of his times he is also condescending, claiming that people are not that interested in “lady paintings”.
Keane is a relentless hustler, willing to sell bad art anywhere. The waif paintings garner notoriety as Keane gets in a fight with the owner of a nightclub (Jon Polito) who allows him to exhibit them on the way to the restrooms. Margaret can’t bring herself to set things straight. When she tries to speak out, Keane impedes her. She ends up churning out “Keanes” in secret as he opens an art gallery to exclusively sell “his” work. They make a mint.
The story is unbelievable, but Burton only touches upon themes that beg for more depth. Amy Adams is very good as Margaret, who gets more frustrated and bitter the more successful her paintings are. But in a rare misstep for Christoph Waltz, his Keane is overbearing from his first moment onscreen, and it’s hard to be charmed, let alone fooled, by him. What should be a disappointing discovery for Margaret and for the audience that this charmer is a charlatan is not a surprise twist, but a given.
Keane is no artist, but he is a tireless and innovative salesman, and soon he starts printing posters and postcards of his wife’s paintings. As we say today, he successfully scales the business.
The mystery of why Margaret allowed this to go on for so long remains unsolved. She evinces an independent streak by starting a new life on her own, so why submit so completely, so unfairly to the lies of a con artist? In the movie, Keane becomes more brazen, more unhinged and more controlling the more success they have, and the better they do, the harder it is to stop, but Big Eyes lets this question gnaw at you long after it is over. The money, and the security that came with it, may have acted as a huge deterrent to put a stop to Keane’s increasingly exploitative shenanigans. One can understand all her external motivations: she kept quiet to protect her daughter, to preserve her marriage, to enjoy financial security. It’s her internal moral compass that is an enigma. She was a spiritual, religious person who seemed deeply uncomfortable with the ruse, and she had a code of conduct, which makes her compliance all the more baffling. Perhaps what helped is that she didn’t seem to have an ego. An ego would have never let such a thing happen.
Soon fame arrives, with the press in tow. They have lots of questions about Keane’s art. He has no idea why he paints these children, so he hounds Margaret for motivations, which he deems insufficient as she seems to paint compulsively out of a sad sense of empathy. This is not nearly pretentious or artistic enough for an artist of his stature, so Keane invents a tearjerking backstory for publicity purposes. His vanity has no scruples.
Big Eyes raises a lot of questions. Is it enough to have a purity of purpose and honest feelings in order to be an artist? Yes, but not a good one. Even though Margaret’s art is kitsch, it comes from her soul. She employs no calculation, just emotion. Her intentions are pure; her art, terrible. New York Times critic John Canaday (a fabulous Terence Stamp) demolishes Keane’s art in public and in front of Margaret. She could hide behind her husband’s posturing and feel perversely vindicated; after all, her reputation is intact. But she is devastated. How can anybody say anything so cruel about art that comes from the heart?
Things get even weirder and darker, and quite bizarre, as she finally decides she’s had enough of the pretense and sues Keane. He turns from an annoying pest to someone darker, more ruthless, unwilling to let go of the fantasy, and possibly believing his own lie. And she finally grows a pair.
Big Eyes is the strange, sad, astonishing story of two provincials with artistic ambitions, Margaret’s driven by heart, Keane’s by ego.