Sunday, February 5, 2012

Helen Mirren as Marat

by Robert Boyd

The Painted Lady still
still from Painted Lady, 1997

Painted Lady was a two part television movie from 1997 starring Helen Mirren. It has a strong art angle. Mirren's character is a penniless folk-rock singer past her prime. Her friend, a wealthy older man who lets her live in a cottage on his estate, is killed during an attempted robbery. The thieves were targeting his paintings and got away with one of them. The movie is about how she poses as an art dealer in an attempt to get it back and bring the killers to justice.

In the scene above, she has gone to her sister's house. Her sister is an art historian and her brother-in-law is an art consultant. He doesn't know she is in the house, and when he walks in, he thinks there is an intruder. Armed with a cricket bat, he bursts into the bathroom.

The Painted Lady Still

The whole ridiculous scene was set up so that Mirren could be put into a tableau that mimics J.L. David's famous masterpiece, Death of Marat (1793).

The Death of Marat
J.L. David, Death of Marat, oil on canvas, 65 x 50 3/8 inches, 1793

(Of course, Mirren's version had to be scaled differently for the television screen.)

As I've mentioned before in this blog, Mirren's career began with a movie about a painter. In fact, the post I wrote about Age of Consent is the all-time most popular post on this blog (why? I think people searching for nude photos of Mirren find that post. I hope they actually read it as well).

Death of Marat is a popular painting to recreate. If you type in "Death of Marat" into Google Images, you not only see many photos of the original David painting, you also see many imitations and homages. A big part of the Oscar-nominated documentary Waste Land dealt with the creation of a version of Death of Marat made completely of garbage.

This scene adds nothing to the movie--in fact, it is contrived and unnecessary. But the movie is no masterpiece. It's a piece of entertainment with an interesting art angle, so I don't mind that the filmmakers decided to have a little art historical fun. And it no doubt flattered its educated viewers who recognized the homage. It made them feel smart.


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