Cinema has often been inspired by paintings, which is unsurprising, considering both art forms are visual manifestations and manipulation of life. Both are starkly distinct and, at times, conflicting mediums. However, despite differences, filmmaking has been considered painterly and proven to be so countless times now by the incorporation of paintings in cinematic frames. Some of these incorporations are intentional, while some may be accidental, revealed only in retrospective analyses. Nevertheless, the parallels between the two forms remain intriguing in both cases.
Film Meeting Art
Vugar Efendi’s supercut published in three parts, titled “Film Meets Art,” lists almost fifty instances of paintings reflected in filmography. Efendi’s archive hosts some well-known examples, such as Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 Dreams which reflected the pathos of Vincent van Gogh’s 1890 Wheatfield With Crows not just through cinematic solstice but also through metaphor. An unrecognizable Scorsese plays Van Gogh in Dreams, who, interspersed in a cinematic environment aided by Chopin, represents the pathos of the human condition, with Wheatfield With Crows posing as the setting as well as the story.
Alongside such noteworthy instances, Efendi also notes some lesser-known, obscure, and arcane parallels like the painting Lamentation of Christ (1475-90) by Andrea Mantegna in the film The Return (2003) by Andrey Zvyaginstev and painting Over the Town (1918) by Marc Chagall in the film Sexy Beast (2000) by Jonathan Glazer, that are much newer discoveries or analyses.
Edward Hopper in Films
In his 2015 book The Pixels of Paul Cezanne: And Reflections on Other Artists, German filmmaker Wim Wenders writes, “All the paintings of Edward Hopper could be taken from one long movie about America, each one the beginning of a new scene.”
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With their minimalism, geometrical stripped-down simplicity, and heightened steeliness, Edward Hopper’s paintings have served as palettes for filmmakers multiple times. Wenders, one of the countless filmmakers to have been influenced by Hopper, hosts heavy Hopper-esque imagery in numerous works, from his very first US production Hammett in 1982 to The American Friend (1977); Paris, Texas (1984); and Don’t Come Knocking (2006); among others. In The End of Violence (1997), Wenders included an extended recreation of Nighthawks, sequencing out the painting in multiple shots to augment the storyline, not just the frame.
The most bodacious example of the employment of Hopper’s frames in film is in Gustav Deutsch’s 2013 singular work Shirley: Visions of Reality, which recounts the life of a fictional actress named Shirley through thirteen paintings by Edward Hopper. There is a specific lack of narrative flow in Deutsch’s film, owing to its heavily constructed nature, but what catches the eye is the interplay of the discernible color scheme, the blocking, and the lighting (that is peculiar to Hopper), creating a cinematic space where the characters on screen remain ensconced in an embrace of emptiness, wrapped in “the loneliness thing.”
Despite flopping financially, the 1981 film Pennies From Heaven garnered critical acclaim from the audience. Featuring four paintings recomposed as tableaux vivants, Ross’s romantic drama allowed cinematographer Gordon Willis to create the stylized mythology of the Depression that it turned out to be (Kael, 1984). Film critic Pauline Kael noted, “…there was never a second when I wasn’t fascinated by what was happening on the screen.” (Kael, 1984)
Although set in significantly different contexts, spatially and temporally, Herbert Ross’s anachronistic usage of the paintings–Hudson Bay Fur Company and 20 Cent Movie by Reginald Marsh, as well as New York Movie and Nighthawks by Edward Hopper–only augmented the mythology of the film. Edward Hopper’s seminal 1942 painting Nighthawks, a small assortment of lonely individuals, perceived from an intriguing distance and an almost voyeur-like gaze, depicts urban solitude like no other. In Pennies From Heaven, the uncanny emotionality present in the painting is evoked in the respective scene built on it, where Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters are featured sitting at the diner. The verisimilitude in the cinematic parallel renders it instantly recognizable.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 epoch-defining classic Psycho has also been influenced heavily by Hopper’s work. Hopper’s realism, described as haunting, isolated, and defined by what it leaves out rather than what it shows, is perfectly exercised in Hitchcock’s work and not just in the cinematography. Hitchcock employs a Hopper-esque temperament throughout the narrative, delving into the eerie solitude that permeates one’s consciousness characteristic of Hopper to create a Hopperesque loneliness. Progress as an isolating factor then becomes both a metaphor and a tool for executing it.
The 1925 painting The House By the Railroad, portraying the changing America with old houses left out of context with the advent of railroads, is picked up by Hitchcock. The old House, waiting to be explored by the railroad, then becomes the landscape for the horror to unfold.
Jean-Luc Godard and Art
Watch from 33:52 to 34:56
Jean-Luc Godard’s films are particularly known for their heavily constructed visuals, often merging close-ups of actual paintings (that are occasionally visual puns on the characters’ names) with cinematic reproductions of them. Juxtapositions that are not just relational but disruptive, slice up the action, and punctuate the narrative with deliberation in Godard’s filmography. Resemblances to paintings are uncanny in Jean-Luc Godard’s opus, with the most recognizable and recognized references in his 1982 film Passion.
Here, Godard fashions his film using several recreations of classical European paintings, the most famous of which is a sequence in reference to La Petite Baigneuse. Intérieur de Harem (1828) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, in which a female nude in a chaste pose forms the axis around which the composition gets centered. Although nude, the figure and its depiction lack the usual sexual emphasis and instead lean towards the delicate, the sensual, and the light. The folds of the linen and the green drapes further soften the figure, lending a roundness to it and furthering the measured calmness of the painting.
Godard’s employment of Ingres’s painting is almost literal; he replicates the painting in the form of a tableaux vivant, where the sequences of nude women in Turkish baths are included in fragmented episodes, interspersed with and interrupted by episodes in the motel and the factory. The theme of desire, hence, gets juxtaposed with that of the exterior world of labor.
Interestingly, the tableaux vivants are accompanied by luxurious soundtracks and no dialogue, thereby separating and creating a disjunction between the people outside and their dialogues. The world of art is then contrasted with the world of labor, where, despite having ideals, one has to face the real.
Alex Colville in Films
Wes Anderson’s films are heavy on visual stimulation, often referring to paintings to enrich his frames. Anderson relies immensely on planimetric composition, tight symmetry, center-framing, and flatness, which attributes a two-dimensional quality to his films. This, along with the non-realistic presentation and chapter-like division of his narratives, make the viewer feel as if they are not watching a film but reading a heavily illustrated novel.
The most popular of these resemblances are found in Moonrise Kingdom, where Wes pays homage to Alex Colville’s 1965 painting To Prince Edward Island. Both frames are centered around a female figure holding up a pair of binoculars and peering through them directly at the audience, returning the spectator’s gaze. However, the only other similarity between the two works is the sea. Colville’s painting is draped in a pale blue hue, while Anderson’s frame is contrasted with oranges and reds. The background of a lighthouse in the latter further augments the center framing, tightening the symmetry and adding Wes Anderson’s signature touches to the reference to Colville.
Colville’s 1967 painting Pacific also served as a framework for Michael Mann’s 1995 crime film Heat. The painting and the film scene both focus on a gun lying on the table, with a single male figure facing away from the audience and looking out over the ocean. Influenced heavily by French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Colville composed a painting fraught with tension, trauma, and drama that is at the same time also extremely passive, considering that the man is turned away from the gun and the painting is innocuously named Pacific. Colville himself said, “I don’t think the painting is about suicide, I guess I think of the gun and the table as necessary parts of human life, upon which it is possible sometimes to turn one’s back.” (Dow, 1972)
In Heat, the composition is retained in its detailed geometric construction as well as its intensity. The only difference is that the blue is deeper, and the man is clothed insofar as to posit a continuation of the storyline.
Paintings in Films
Paintings in films do not just allow a creative interjection but execute a dialogue between two art forms. This exploration is not just an experimental activity for the filmmaker but an intellectual activity for the audience that brings out the implicit nuances and additional meanings in all their multiplicities. There are multiple other instances of references or reflections of paintings in films, with new instances being discovered every day. Here are ten other notable examples:
- Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller
Reference to: The Elephants, by Salvador Dali
- A Clockwork Orange, directed by Stanley Kubrick
Reference to: Prisoners Exercising, by Vincent Van Gogh
- Melancholia, directed by Lars Von Trier
Reference to: Ophelia, by John Everett Millais
- The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin
Reference to: The Empire of Lights, by René Magritte
- The Shining, by Stanley Kubrick
Reference: Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, by Diane Arbus
- Viridiana, by Luis Buñuel. Watchmen by Zack Snyder. Inherent Vice
Reference: The Last Supper, by Leonardo Da Vinci
- About Schmidt, by Alexander Payne
Reference: The Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David
- The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, by Terry Gilliam
Reference: The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli
- The Truman Show, by Peter Weir
Reference: Architecture au clair de lune, by René Magritte
- Moonlight, by Barry Jenkins
Reference: Evening Dress, by René Magritte
Kael, P. (1984). Taking It All In.
Dow. H.J. (1972) The Art of Alex Colville.
Wenders. W. (2015) The Pixels of Paul Cezanne: And Reflections on Other Artists.