In late December, many people I know decided to watch the mystery movie Glass Onion on Netflix. It is a sequel to the movie Knives Out, with Daniel Craig reprising his role as Southern gentleman detective Benoit Blanc. The film features commentary on success, wealth, and influence, mainly through the character of eccentric tech billionaire Miles Bron, played by Edward Norton. Bron has filled his residence on his private island in Greece with countless treasures purchased with his fortune. Kathryn Hahn’s character describes the home’s interior as akin to the Tate Modern. Eagle-eyed viewers would notice works in the style of Francis Bacon and Cy Twombly on the walls, likely created by the film’s art department to populate a fictional billionaire’s art collection. But there are also recreations of real paintings in the background of many shots, including Picasso’s Cat Devouring a Bird and Nichols Canyon by David Hockney. Also featured are glass or crystal replicas of famous sculptures like Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog and Bird in Space by Constantin Brâncuşi.
By the end, the film becomes a critique of wealthy, seemingly successful people who, in reality, owe their success mainly to profiting off the ideas of others. Many claim that figures like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos may have inspired Norton’s character. Miles Bron is revealed to be an idiot passing himself off as a genius. While this isn’t revealed until far into the film, there are some warning signs to pick up on, including his art collection. The works on the walls appear to be scattered about in a random assortment. There doesn’t seem to be any effort to display these works properly alongside works in the same style, or by the same artist, or even hanging them in proper lighting. This may indicate that their owner purchased them not for their aesthetic qualities or admiration for twentieth-century abstract art but rather for their estimated value. This reflects some real-world collectors, some of whom often primarily see valuable art more as an investment to be profited from rather than a person’s original creation to be admired.
Keeping a horde of well-known paintings in a mansion on a private island may also be a criticism of some collectors’ practices of keeping art away from public view. The most notable example of this is Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, the most expensive painting yet sold at auction. While it is not confirmed, the work is reportedly stored not in a properly-curated museum or gallery space but on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s private yacht. The most glaring example of Glass Onion’s critique of amateur collectors is one painting in Miles Bron’s art collection. Mark Rothko’s Number 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray) hangs in the background of several scenes. But anyone who knows the painting will realize that the work is actually hung upside down. Rian Johnson later admitted that he intentionally did this to indicate how little Miles knows or cares about his collection and to reveal the character’s true nature. Johnson wanted to convey “a lack of self-awareness”. In any case, Glass Onion is a film that is not necessarily about art but uses art very smartly to send a message about its characters and the world.