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Simultaneously grotesque yet tender material is director Tim Burton’s specialty. Burton was therefore the perfect choice for a film about Margaret Keane’s art, which was mostly recognizable by children with strange – but sweet – over-sized eyes. Big Eyes is easily among my personal favorite Tim Burton films.
I recently had the pleasure of attending the Film Independent at LACMA screening series for the world premiere of Big Eyes, which will open Christmas Day. Burton and stars Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, after watching it for the first time themselves, participated in a panel dscussion moderated by Film Independent curator, Elvis Mitchell.
Big Eyes tells the story of Margaret and Walter Keane in the 1950s and 1960s. The Keanes’ marriage ends after years of Walter defrauding the world, and perhaps even himself, into thinking that his wife’s paintings of wide-eyed children were his own creation.
The film begins with Margaret (Amy Adams) packing her things and driving off with her daughter (Delaney Raye), just having left husband number one. She moves to San Francisco, where she soon meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) at an outdoor art fair where they both have set up shop.
You can instantly see why Burton was the right director for this story. The over-sized, pastel teal car, driving along a bright and symmetrical suburban street of 1950s San Francisco is iconic of his work. A voice-over narration, used throughout the film, adds to the storybook feel.
However, this storybook suburbia is real. While the aesthetics of the time and place fit right in with Burton’s taste, the larger than life character of Walter Keane truly seems to have lived for the sole purpose of providing Tim Burton with an ideal subject for a film.
The moment Margaret and the audience meet Walter we both fall in love. Who wouldn’t? He is the definition of charming and charismatic, with a mouth so smooth and fast it deserves its own Olympic category. At first, the worst we may think is that he is a delightfully manipulative scoundrel. However, we soon understand that Walter’s ability to manipulate the truth is out of control, and a symptom of deeper issues. In 1986, 20 years after Margaret leaves Walter, she decides to sue him for slander to finally set the record straight on who the true artist of the family is. During the case, a court psychologist diagnoses Walter as having delusional disorder.
Delusional disorder, according to the DSM-IV, is characterized by the presence of either bizarre or non-bizarre delusions (or a fixed, false belief that is resistant to any reason or opposition with genuine fact), which perseveres for at least one month. The inclusion of bizarre delusions was a fairly recent addition, updated in the latest edition of the DSM 5.
A bizarre delusion is one that is clearly implausible and not understandably derived from ordinary life experiences. For example, if a person claimed that someone took out his or her organs and replaced them with someone else’s organs without leaving any scars or physical evidence of any kind, this belief would be deemed “bizarre.”
Non-bizarre delusions typically are about something occurring in a person’s life that is not out of the realm of possibility. Some examples include when a person believes: their significant other is cheating on them; a close friend is about to die; a friend is really a secret government agent; and so on. All of these examples are situations that technically could be true, or at least could be labeled as a possibility, but when checked by a third-party, proves not to be.
People like Walter Keane, who had delusional disorder, by and large do not show a noticeable impairment in their daily life. Their outward behaviors cannot generally be labeled as objectively out-of-the-ordinary or show clear signs of alarm.
Much of diagnosing delusional disorder can be categorized as being one of exclusion: the delusion in question cannot be better diagnosed as schizophrenia, a mood disorder or any other clear and strong potential diagnostic alternative.
Even without knowing the specifics, the average viewers could easily walk away from the film having made the diagnosis about Walter Keane for themselves. Even more convincing than his threats to “whack” his wife if she speaks the truth, are the wide smiles and fantastical justifications Waltz makes while calmly explaining his way out of whatever hole he happens to have been caught in. For example, years into their marriage (and lie) Margaret is taken aback by a surprising stepdaughter Walter never bothered to tell her about. While it is obvious to you, me and of course Margaret, Walter, through a clenched but convincing smile tells Margaret that he was sure he told her, and that it must just be a simple misunderstanding, not worthy of another thought. This character clearly does not deal with reality well.
The film is a far cry from perfect, or even greatness. No one could delude themselves into thinking Big Eyes is a masterpiece worthy of Keane’s own ego. There are many narrative threads it left unresolved, such as the surprise daughter. It seems as if Burton may have been a bit overwhelmed by the details of this story, unable to resist including each one, since they were all so awesomely perfect for the screen. Unlike some other films by the director (such as Alice in Wonderland, where the convoluted exploitation of the narrative may have been caused by overreaching), in Big Eyes, the filmmaker curbs his enthusiasm: he is firmly in control of his subject.
Nevertheless, the Burton touch is very much alive and all the more effective for its restraint. It maintains the fairytale feel while at the same time being both real and realistic.
The depiction of Walter Keane’s delusional disorder is 100% realistic. While the film never actually uses the phrase, “delusional disorder” it knows it could not deny this fact about the character. But more importantly, it wouldn’t want to. This character’s condition defines what happens in the film.
For example, the court sequence draws the viewer in with the fantastically absurd actions of Walter. While serving as his own lawyer, he questions himself, literally scurrying back and forth from the witness stand to behind the examiner’s table. After the judge orders both Margaret and Walter to paint in order to prove who is telling the truth, Walter still does not, and perhaps cannot, admit the truth. Rather, he clutches his arm in pain and claims to be suffering from an injury that renders him incapable of painting. Such actions, while not obviously irrational, are far more deluded than your average lie.
In the end, Big Eyes depicts the disorder accurately and exploits it with integrity. Without the disorder, there would be no conflict. Some films sacrifice accuracy (of such disorders) for the sake of heightening the drama. That is not the case here: the disorder underlies the conflict of the film without sacrificing authenticity.
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