Mona Lisa Smile is the greatest work of art ever to grace a television screen. Except, interestingly, I have never watched it on a television screen. I have only ever watched it on my computer, at weird times of the day, in between prolonged bouts of weeping.
I watched Mona Lisa Smile a grand total of 147 times (I counted on my Netflix History) in the summer of 2015. In the space of six weeks, in between getting a 2:2 in my degree and then doing a graduate diploma (that I aced and got a big old first for, if you’re asking). I was incredibly depressed, because I’d “Failed”. It felt like a 2:2 wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, and it’d all happened because I’d tried to write my dissertation in a week, and a 30k portfolio of 9 essays in 3 days (i did actually manage both of these feats).
Anyway, this isn’t the space to humble brag (JK we all know that’s the entire reason I’m writing about Mona Lisa Smile. You’ll see when you get to the end of this). This is a space to talk about the Art History Film of an entire generation (a generation of one. That is to say: me).
Mona Lisa Smile is a seminal work starring Julia Roberts as Katherine Watson. She’s a hot rod history of art teacher from NEW YORK CITY and she’s about to shake up wellesley college, man. She’s gonna take these 1950s girls, who are treating college like a finishing school, and show them how to look at art. Groundbreaking, truly: breathtaking.
You want to know what else? This film is chockablock with your favourite 2000s actresses. It’s got Kirsten Dunst playing the Bitch™, you’ve got Maggie Gyllenhaal as the Slut, you’ve got Ginnifer Goodwin as The Lame One, and Julia Stiles as The Smart One. They have names, but the names don’t matter. The film is full of sexual intrigue, class politics, gender politics (marriage? Sleeping around? What does it mean to be a single woman in post war america? What does it mean to be a man who never went to war?), the anxiety of post war america (oooh the women have been to work, what are we going to do?), but most of all it’s full of some bloody great art. The discussions boil down to WHAT IS ART. WHO GETS TO DECIDE WHAT ART IS. ooooo…
Let’s break the pieces down, shall we.
In Katherine’s first lesson, all the students know everything she’s going to say. They’ve read the syllabus, they’ve memorised the textbooks, the slides are just filler. Katherine founders and fluffs her way through the lecture as the students become increasingly bored of classical art history and its progression through time. You, the audience, are like “yawn what a snoozefest. Art is BORING.” They’re making Katherine feel like an idiot. Q frankly she looks like a bit of one.
The lesson ends, and Katherine packs up her things looking dejected. What a moment; it’s not all working out like we’d hoped it would. All the gals are being buttholes. What’re we gonna do?
Fast forward to lesson two and Katherine is having none-of-your-shit © . She’s standing up the front of the class, and she’s not doing anything from your stuffy old text books, oh no. She’s showing you some real ART (all caps for emphasis).
She shows you, and her class, Soutine’s Carcass of Beef from 1925. Kirsten Dunst pipes up first, in tru The Bitch™ character: “What is that?” You are thinking the same thing, Katherine just says “You tell me.” bc she’s a bad ass babe who’s not going to take it lying down from these finishing school gals, oh no ma’am. Here’s your first cool art lesson, and the first lesson I had on the big questions: What is Art (capital A), how do we define it, who gets to define it. Is it always people like The Bitch™ ? (The answer is usually yes, but at this point I was daring to d r e a m).
Anyway, the interesting thing about choosing this piece of work is that it’s all about assimilation. Soutine was a Lithuanian Jewish artist, who produced paintings throughout the early 20th Century. Following his emigration from Lithuania to France, and setting up shop in Paris, he began to produce the carcass paintings. Each tortured brush stroke speaks to a frenzied need to see and be seen. His position as a Jew in post First World War France is written in the raw and vivid reds and blues that are present upon the canvas.
An interesting choice, then, for the film to choose, when Katherine is trying not to assimilate. Soutine painted these pieces when he began to experience some fiscal success, his work had been sold to a wealthy collector in Philadelphia, things were looking up, and between 1924 and 1927 he painted various carcases in varying stages of decay. All of them red, and sick looking. All of them are full of danger, power and pain. What kind of a reaction to success is this, and why is Mona Lisa Smile hitting these works first? Is it because they’re paintings made out of a wish to assimilate, that ultimately result in the opposite?
The Bitch™ says “I wouldn’t even call it art, it’s grotesque” and then the The Lame One says “Is there are rule against art being grotesque”, at which The Slutty one says “there’s something aggressive about it, and erotic.” Aha! You think, here’s the big convo, this is getting juicy, THIS IS LEARNING.
Here we are, then, arriving at the scene that made me want to study Art History. This is it. Katherine is wearing a BERET. (DING DING DING ART CLICHE. Interestingly this might have also been the beginning of my being a francophile which has now resulted in me living in Paris so…) She’s got gloves on, she strides through the gaggle of girls to gaze lovingly up at the painting. If she could run her hands over its textured surface she would. I would too.
The thing about this scene is that there’s like, 5 lines of dialogue. The scene is about the Pollock, and it is i n c r e d i b l e: “Do me a favour, do yourselves a favour, stop talking and look.” She stands in front of it in a kind of reverie, gazing at the erratic drips and dribbles of paint, soaking it in; then the students follow. The camera really gets up close and personal with every scratchy blob or smear, it’s like looking at the art for yourself. Again you, the viewer, (by which I mean me) become one of the students.
The painting isn’t discussed in the same way that they discuss Soutine’s Carcass, not because there’s less to say about it, but because the film assumes that you’ve learned enough to look for yourself. You have become the student, you’ve progressed. You can now look and interpret without Katherine, or the other students, feeding you what to think. Just the brush strokes, and the score, and your own two eyes. Ahhh it’s like going to the gallery without leaving ur front room.
The inclusion of this piece of Abstract Expressionism here, following the last major work by Soutine which falls squarely in Expressionism is a brilliant choice. Not only are the students (and therefore you by proxy) progressing, but the art itself is. We’re moving into another movement, and the very contemporaneousness of this piece makes it feel like a revolutionary volta in the film’s narrative. Lavender Mist, the painting in question, is a veritable landscape of paint, and stands for a narrative of the changing landscape of Post War America within the film itself. Isn’t it brill when you feel like you get it? The film is engineered to make you love art, to make you love the avant garde, and to make you want to be staring at a Pollock in Beret. It worked like a charm for me in any case.
Vincent Van Gogh.
Then we get to the paint by numbers bit. They talk about Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and they talk about how famous he is, and how we’re able to reproduce art. This is classic Walter Benjamin. If you’ve not read The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction you should, it’s v. interesting, but Katherine seems to echo Benjamin.
She says: “Look at what we have done to the man who refused to conform his ideals to popular taste. Who refused to compromise his integrity. We have put him in a tiny box and asked you to copy him.” Yet, I’m not sure if she does truly say that the reproduction of the work devalues the original, as Benjamin does. Rather that the act of reproduction breaks something within you that the art speaks to. That painting within the numbers is conforming to what has been accepted as the norm. Van Gogh was rejected, and then accepted. Acceptability is now found in recreating what he did in order to be accepted yourself. A pretty clumsy reading if you ask me. Having now read Benjamin’s text myself, following my real-life art education, I feel like the reproduction of art allows everyone to experience it rather than devaluing the original. It makes the original all the more remarkable for its differences to the reproductions. It increases its reach, rather than diminishing its what Benjamin calls its aura. For Benjamin, “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” But that’s not what the reproduction is for, the reproduction is there to bring the art to you; the original is there to bring the artist to you.
Anyway, I’ve gotten off topic.
The thing about all these scenes, isn’t really that they’re about the art (although it is), it’s about the fact that the art was allowing these repressed women to express themselves, and to see the flaws within the society they inhabited. Now, the film is overwhelmingly white, and doesn’t really comment on the fact that this kind of education is only available to these women by proxy of their race and class, but it does allow them to see that they’re lives are a sham built out of the lie of The American Dream for Women™.
In my favourite scene, following The Bitch™’s takedown of Katherine in the College Newspaper, Katherine gives a class analysing contemporary advertisements as future relics of the current Epoch. She questions each of the Wellsley girls’ position in contemporary society, what their purpose is, and what the purpose of all this education actually is. She basically rips them apart: “a girdle to set you free! WHAT DOES THAT MEAN”. This scene taught me that everything can be read and understood as a form of art. Everything that is a part of our visual culture feeds into how we understand ourselves, and our culture as a whole. Who are we if not a sum of our parts?
But now we get to the true reason as to why I think Mona Lisa Smile is a masterpiece.
I did my degree in English literature. I spent three years reading books (or rather not reading the books) and writing about them, and I’d come out with this 2:2 that was preventing me from getting a good grad job, or continuing my studies. So, it was on watch number 246 that I suddenly said… wait a minute. I think Art History might be the course for me, I think I want to study Art and learn how to look. I want to be Julia Roberts, and say just LOOK at that, and actually know what I’m talking about.
So there it is, this review is really just a big old confessional about how I only ended up getting a first class Masters in Art Theory because Julia Roberts wore a beret and looked at a Jackson Pollock. My whole life has only happened the way it’s happened, because of Mona Lisa Smile.
(humble brag numero deux… actually is that humble? Nah… probably not, but I don’t care)
Movies have the power to change your life.
Mona Lisa Smile is about how Art, with a capital A, can set you free. How it can release you from the rigid boundaries of your circumstances and let you explore and experience something outside of yourself. It also is about The Future (capital letters) and the inexorable progression of progress, of liberation. It’s the perfect depression movie, and therefore it’s lowkey the perfect lockdown movie imo. It’s about opening up the windows, and giving yourself a different view on the world. Settle down, turn out the lights, light a cedar scented candle, and pretend you know about art – this is the movie for you.
Lucy wallis is a writer from London who can currently be found in Paris pretending to live the dream. She edits the zine near window, and her first full length work is due to be published soon. She tweets @thelucylist