Every joke has a grain of truth in it, and the central one in Glass Onion, Rian Johnson’s new celebrity-bedecked murder mystery now streaming on Netflix, contains more than a bit of honesty.
The gag revolves around the Mona Lisa, which appears not in the Louvre but in an Elon Musk–like billionaire’s house, where the Leonardo da Vinci painting can be found encased in a transparent frame, bearing witness as a group of moneyed friends and foes squabble over who killed one of their own.
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Herein lies the irony: the Mona Lisa, a painting considered to be so valuable that its monetary worth is not known, becomes less important than what happens in front of it, as has periodically happened in real life. In the film, the painting, like all the other art alongside it, is quite literally the backdrop to a crime scene. One museum’s crown jewel becomes a rich man’s window dressing.
Miles Bron, the fictional mogul whose $450 million house in Greece acts as the main setting for Johnson’s film, has obtained the painting because of the moment’s unique circumstances. (Edward Norton plays him.) It is May 2020, and everything has shut down. Amid a spell of boredom, he’s invited, via a set of puzzle boxes, a group of old acquaintances to his gaudy seaside manse, for reasons that remain shadowy until they get there. All of the guests, minus the private eye Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), know Miles personally.
After everyone convenes on the island and is inoculated against COVID-19 with what may or may not be snake oil, they assemble in the house’s atrium, where they stand before the Leonardo painting, which is shown amid a grouping of postwar abstractions, figurative paintings, and chintzy sculptures.
“This place is the Tate Modern,” says Connecticut Governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), champagne flute in hand. “Why would you hang a print of the Mona Lisa front and center? It’s like hanging a Che poster in your dorm room.”
Miles smirks and lets his guests figure out that the painting is the real deal. “The Louvre was closed, France needed money, and so I bought myself a little short-term loan,” he says. “You know, it turns out the transport and the security was most of the cost. Check this out.” He holds up a torch lighter and flicks it on, and a shield suddenly covers the painting as everyone looks on agog.
For Miles, the painting is merely a prop used to flaunt his wealth. He doesn’t seem to care much about the Mona Lisa‘s history, and when he does briefly touch on its significance, he claims that Leonardo “invented a technique for brushstrokes that leaves no lines.” That technique is known as sfumato, and Giorgio Vasari, an art historian born nearly a decade after Mona Lisa was painted, even attributed its origins to the Flemish painters, not Italians like Leonardo. Whether that error is the fault of Miles or Johnson himself is unclear.
The Mona Lisa may be the centerpiece in Miles’s home, but there are also a number of other art historically significant works—or, at least, riffs on them. There’s a smeary red abstraction that’s clearly an allusion to the work of Cy Twombly, whose vast paintings can actually be seen right now in the real Tate Modern. There’s a painting of a tear falling out of a woman’s eye, a nod to Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s images of crying women. There’s a canvas showing a cyclopean figure who looks at an entanglement of piping, guts, and hands; it’s similar in style to art by Philip Guston, who’s right now the subject of a traveling retrospective.
No one seems to pay much mind to these works, which may not approach the Mona Lisa in value but, within the film’s world, are bona fide masterpieces unto themselves. Or are they?
There is, for example, no Guston painting that looks exactly like the one in Miles’s collection. It’s a lie that seems just barely convincing, and a false lead just like the ones Blanc investigates during the film’s second hour, after one partier falls through a coffee table while choking on a poisoned cocktail.
Even the paintings that are more closely modeled on real ones are deliberately not given their due. There’s a rendition of Mark Rothko’s 1961 painting Number 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray), which features a fiery crimson mass hanging above a barely-there swatch of navy blue. In Miles’s home, the painting is hung upside-down, so that it’s dark blue over red. “I love the idea that Miles has no idea,” Johnson told the Wall Street Journal.
Miles is meant as a dilettante—a smalltime collector with big-time ambitions who wouldn’t know the first thing about Abstract Expressionism, even if a torrent of Clement Greenberg essays rained down upon him. The film suggests he’s not an anomaly in that regard. All rich people, Johnson seems to say, are obsessed with fancy things. They just don’t want to think when they show off their belongings.
But who gets the last laugh here, the viewers of Glass Onion or the wealthy being targeted by the film? Johnson seems to want it to be the former group, as suggested by the ending, in which—spoiler alert—Helen Brand (Janelle Monáe) sets the Mona Lisa aflame upon the revelation that Miles killed her sister and murdered one of his guests. (It’s all part of a conspiracy intended to grow Miles’s fortune that’s too complicated to explain here.) As the Mona Lisa’s smile is reduced to embers, Miles cries out in existential pain, and Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” plays on the soundtrack.
There’s one shot in which Mondrian and Bacon lookalikes can be glimpsed burning too, but the focus here is really the Mona Lisa, which gets her own movie-star closeups and the requisite reverse shots with an anguished Norton. This implies that Johnson was always most interested in the Leonardo, too, and that that painting is really the most valuable one in Miles’s collection, all the other art on view be damned.
The painting worth the most money gets the greatest attention in Glass Onion, enacting the same misguided art-historical dynamic that Johnson himself wants to subvert. Miles’s place is the Tate Modern. Why would Johnson put the Mona Lisa front and center?