Art and Movies Snuggle up Together

What inspires film directors to make movies? Fat salaries, Oscar dreams, sexy starlets, the need to pass on their “message” to the unenlightened spectator? I don’t know much about cinema, so I can’t be certain of anything beyond what I am told by people who do.

For instance, I read that Lars von Trier filmed Melancholia because he’d wanted to vent out his depression, which he accomplished with double success. He has cured himself and passed it on to millions of his fans. This also makes it a unique case of depression treatment, which is hugely profitable to the sufferer, though not easily accessible to the public at large.

Even though I am not a cinephile (excluding Star Wars, of course), I am curious about ways art of the past inspires modern film directors.

Sometimes, a painting can inspire a scene that becomes iconic and, perhaps, becomes known to more people than the painting that inspired it. I remembered von Trier because he seems to have stolen fame of Ophelia by Everett Millais (1862) in his Melancholia.


For me, Lars’ cutting his palette down to green and white shows he understands as much about Millais as I understand about his movies. The painting’s concept is in the contrast between the live red flowers and green duckweed. Without it, all you get is an ordinary drowned woman.

Sometimes, film directors are inspired by stuff everyone knows, like Goya’s Saturn devouring his children or Botticelli’s Venus. I don’t know why they do it: It is difficult to make a quote interesting by just quoting it.

Did Guillermo del Toro invent a new monster in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)? No, borrowing ideas from Goya was not enough.


Toro’s creature is sickeningly ugly, but Goya’s Saturn is way scarier, don’t you think?

Unike Toro, who uses paintings to help him out with images, Terry Gilliam (in The Adventures of Baron Munchausenuses art to build narrative, like in this animation of the Birth of Venus by Botticelli (1486):

I once read that “Gilliam uses Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus as a vehicle to critique overelaboration and the illusory grandeur of illustration. As a figure divorced from her context, Venus appears embarrassed and self-conscious”. I struggle with this logic because, first, I don’t know why would anyone could be concerned with “the illusory grandeur of illustration” to the point that its critique would be appreciated, and second, Botticelli’s Venus is pretty much self-conscious and a lot more embarrassed than the Gilliam’s twin, not to mention that Simonetta Vespucci who inspired Botticelli was indeed a beauty goddess while Uma Thurman is just an A-list celebrity.


Or take the famous still from Coppola’s Lost in Translation literally quoting the work of John Kacere, a butt-crazy photo-realistic painter whose heritage is 90% female back sides. With all due respect, we know many men are fixated on this part of the female body, but spending a life painting it photo-realistically seems a case for therapy rather than artistic recognition.

lost in translation

What surprises me is the massive applause the film got from critics known for their feminist stance.  A female film director uses Scarlett Johansson’s butt as the main selling point with deafening success. Doesn’t it make all the debate about female objectification sound a bit artificial?

I like it when paintings inspire directors to do more than just quote them.

This portrait of an emancipated journalist and poet by Otto Dix (1926) was briefly quoted in the opening sequence of Cabaret, but it also defined how the German society was portrayed in the movie further on.


Otto Dix created a portrait of a generation. It is a great work of art. I can imagine only a single organisation to be reticent about it: the World Health Organisation. Not surprisingly, its idea could roll out into a movie.

I am not sure I know any other example of art being cleverly used in a movie. Help me out, please. Do you remember art in movies being more than just a passing reference, or a primitive quote? As of today, I have a feeling film directors, generally, love talking about great art of the past that inspires them, but fail to create something bigger than the art that allegedly inspired them. I’d love to be proven wrong. 

PS I just remembered this great series of Francis Bacon as the inspiration behind the Joker. Christopher Nolan produced a villain who was, actually, a step ahead of Bacon’s visions:




  1. I know that Ophelia is considered a tragic figure even if slightly dumb.But the painting by Everett Millais shows a sort of beauty in death,enhanced by the greenery and flowers around her.But von Trier’s Ophelia-if that is who she is-she looks like a slightly psychotic killer bride holding flowers for her victim just before dying.I still don understand completely what “Illusory Grandeur of Illustration”means so I won’t comment on that.
    I haven’t seen any of John Kacere’s paintings nor the movie but I’m surprised they were well-received since these days people are very concerned with gender-equality issues which makes this kinda hypocritical.

    1. Feminist film critics lining up to praise Lost in Translation does seem a bit,,,strange, yes, given the visuals Coppola used to arrest attention of the watcher ))

  2. As Leslie, I never thought about this but I’m glad you did! Art should always be to convey a message, an emotion or to defy our vision of reality. Unfortunately, most of them is created to make profit.
    I usually don’t have favourite characters, but Joker found its way inside my heart.

    1. Well, it’s found its way inside many hearts, so, perhaps, Francis Bacon should get a mention in the credits ) It is an interesting example of an artist who is described by many as controversial or even “disgusting” helped create something that is universally recognised as emotionally involving.

  3. You might as well ask what inspires artists to paint.

    With the exception of mobiles, art and certainly flat art is static. Films, in the other hand, move. It is in the editing, the juxtaposition, the rolling story that the art shows itself – or not. So when one art form borrows from another, I don’t care: I am in it for the ride.

    1. I totally agree, for who doesn’t love a great story. My only complain is that great art of the past is rarely used to build a great modern story out of it, but is used rather like a clutch )

  4. I’m glad you pointed out the use of art in film. I never noticed it before. Well I did notice it, but never thought much about it.
    The birth of Venus is so obvious but I found the movie, The Baron Munchhausen, was just plain weird. Perhaps the writers use great works of art to give some depth or credulity to their film. – The painting is great therefore my movies are great by association.

    1. I think most of the time film directors expect their audience to marvel at recognition of the famous artwork muttering, “How clever!”. The idea that it may not be so clever after all is not given time to grow as the narrative takes the spectator further along the plot lines.

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