A look at how classic movies have used art to help characters find themselves.
Creating a set for a movie is a colossal effort. You need much more than an interior designer. In fact, some filmmakers hire entire legal teams to help them pick the right artwork to build the image that will go on screen. That’s because depending on what country it’s released in, copyright laws vary in what artworks a film can and can’t show. Besides, paying the clearance fees, and obtaining the rights to use a famous painting or photo can be high. So when filmmakers do decide on what pieces make the final cut, we can imagine it’s because they were worth the effort.
Some classic movies put art as a front and center symbol of the main character’s development. We’re going to introduce you to two famous films that use art to create compelling character development.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) is a classic American comedy that has landed a place on Rotten Tomatoes Essential ’80s Movies and is rife with quotes that people love to reference. The film follows Ferris, a senior in high school, who decides he would rather spend his day having fun instead of going to school. He creates different antics to get away with this, including leaving a fake mannequin in bed to convince his parents that he’s sick, and just sleeping.
Through the film, we see Ferris rope his friend, Cameron, and girlfriend, Sloane, into his adventures. However, Cameron isn’t as at-ease as Ferris is with escaping a day of classes. The film makes you feel a little bad for Cameron. After Ferris calls Cameron to invite him to skip, you get a glimpse of Cam anxiously debating if he should join him. Nervously, he says, “he’ll keep calling me, he’ll keep calling me until I come over. He’ll make me feel guilty… This is ridiculous! I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go…”
A little bit more context is necessary to understand how Cameron will be shown through art in a later scene. Cameron, who has no mother, feels neglected and uncared for by his wealthy father. All you need to know to picture this is that Cam declares, about his dad, ”Who do you love? You love a car!”
So how does this come out in art? After sneaking into an expensive restaurant, and stopping by a baseball game, the 3 teenagers end up in the Art Institute of Chicago. There, we watch the characters interact with art in a very telling way about themselves. First, we see the teenagers act like children. They hold hands with a group of children amusingly walking through the museum in a long rope. They mimic the stoic position of a statue.
But Cameron interacts with a piece that changes him. He silently faces Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette. Among the many, elegantly dressed folks calmly watching the lake is a child and his mother. The camera zooms into his face, and then the child, his face, the child, and repeat. He looks more deeply until the child’s face is merely a faint beige paint mark on the screen.
The film’s writer and director, John Huges, remarked on the significance of the scene. He says,
“… the more he [Cameron] looks at it [the painting], there’s nothing there. He fears that the more you look at him, the less you see. There isn’t anything there. That’s him.”
Another Easter Egg in the museum is a brief scene of Ferris and Sloane kissing in a dark room that’s highlighted by a beautiful, stained glass window. The style is reminiscent of a church. Both of these scenes pay off for later character development.
In the same scene where he screams that his father only loves a car, we see finally take a stand against his domineering dad. Yet it’s telling that we never actually see his father in the film, which goes to further highlight his absence. Regardless, it’s a moment of growth for Cameron. He decides out loud to Ferris in Sloane,
“I sort of watched myself from inside. I realized it was ridiculous to be afraid. Worrying about everything. Wishing I was dead, all that shit, I’m tired of it.”
This proclamation is shortly followed by him symbolically kicking and mangling his father’s car. By the time we’ve seen Cameron take the first step to his self-realization, we also see Ferris and Sloane imagine a step into their future.
When Ferris drops Sloane off at home at the end of the day, he realizes that he has to run home after checking the time. Offering her a kiss goodbye before he flies out, Sloane says, “he’s gonna marry me.”
Was the stained glass window (which could easily belong in a church) foreshadowing to the next step in Sloane and Ferris’ relationship? Or was it just something that made Sloane realize what she wanted to her future? The film leaves that up to you to decide.
Cameron has some things in common with the next film heroine we’re going to introduce: Amélie.
Amélie ( 2001 ) is a French romantic comedy directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The story follows an adult woman who lives and works as a waitress in Paris. Like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, an understanding of the protagonist’s family life is vital to understanding its later art cameo.
In an opening scene of her childhood, we see that she wants to be hugged by her father, but he only does so when he checks her health each month. Upon thinking Amélie has a heart-condition, he decides she’s unfit for school. So instead of making friends with other kids, she creates imaginary friends of her own. She does make a friend in her pet fish, Blubber, but jumps out of his fish pot one day. Deciding that enough is enough, Amélie’s mother returns the fish to a river.
We can blame this upbringing for creating Amélie’s adulthood personality. She grows up to be a sweet but profoundly timid woman. She does grand, kind gestures for other people, such as reconnecting a long-lost father with his daughter by leaving him various clues.
However, even when her mission turns out to be a success, she never shows her identity or hand in the matter. Eventually, Amélie is forced to recognize that she could be putting her happiness second to everyone else’s. This realization comes to light with the help of her neighbor, Dufayel, and his painting.
Each year, Dufayel recreates a copy of Renoir’s famous piece, Luncheon of the Boating Party. In it, we see sailors and women having a grand ol’ time on a sunny day. But hidden toward the center of the painting is a girl looking off, drinking a glass of water. This girl works as a medium for Dufayel to talk to Amélie about herself.
Amélie projects herself onto the girl, arguing that her thoughts are simply elsewhere. Perhaps even with someone, she felt a connection to (another detail that pays off later). When Dufayel implies that she ought to form relationships with people in real life, she says that actually, she could be trying to fix the lives of those around her.
It’s here that the film pivots as Dufayel says,
“What about her? Her own messy life? Who will fix that?”
Although the ending of this scene is inconclusive, we can see it start a change in Amélie. She doesn’t wake up the next day as an extrovert, ready to reach out to who she loves. But she tries- through her characteristic style of leaving hints and traces for her desire- to lead him to her.
These are only two outstanding films that use art to directly change the main character. Other films have used artwork more subtly. For example, in American Psycho (2000), the art in Patrick Bateman’s perfectly cold apartment was purposefully chosen by the production designer to allude to Patrick’s fake identity.
When you catch onto how other directors use art, you can start doing it yourself for newer films that have been released. Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) is still too young to win any awards. But keep an eye on the paintings shown in the beginning to get a hint of the events that will transpire in this horrifically fantastic film.
Even if an artwork isn’t central to a story, you can be sure that it’s in there for a reason. Considering all the effort that goes into even getting the licensing to feature a film, we might want to at least give art in new cinema more than a passing glance. Maybe we’ll find another layer of the story that we didn’t notice before.