A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words: Francis Bacon and INCEPTION
Aesthetically, Christopher Nolan’s Inception is a masterpiece. In fact, when watching Inception, it feels fitting the term “frame” exists in filmmaking; many frames in Inception enclose avant-garde artwork, particularly reminiscent of the postmodern period. What makes this artistic connection more palpable is the film’s specific reference to a famous postmodern artist, Francis Bacon.
During the first dream sequence, when Cobb attempts to extract Saito’s secret, Cobb’s projection of Mal appears and she and Cobb move to a room within the estate. At the start of the scene, Mal’s fixates her attention to a painting hanging on the wall, “Study for Head of George Dyer” by Francis Bacon. When she indirectly questions the painting’s presence, Cobb explains the Saito, the dream’s “subject,” enjoys postmodern art. However, the significance of that particular painting within Inception is much greater.
Francis Bacon was a(n) (in)famous postmodern artist. Bacon, most notably a painter, fascinating to depict the human condition in raw, unedited fashion. To do so, particularly in with his “heads” (his portraits), he distorted his subject’s appearance. His expressionist style intended to bring out the depth of his subjects in a way a traditional portrait could not.
In the 1960s, Bacon became involved with George Dyer, who, as the story goes, Bacon met as Dyer as he burglarized Bacon’s home. Nevertheless, the two began a relationship lasting nearly 10 years; however, Dyer did not have the social decorum necessary for fitting in with Bacon’s inner circle of friends. Moreover, Dyer was a penniless addict, hooked on alcohol and drugs.
The relationship between Dyer and Bacon was turbulent at times, but a passionate one in which Dyer served as a muse for the artist. “Study for Head of George Dyer,” painted in 1967, is not the only painting Bacon did of his lover; Bacon claimed Dyer walked the line between life and death, which, artistically, Bacon felt compelled to express. Sadly, Dyer overdosed while traveling with Bacon in the early 1970s.
Briefly understanding the history of Bacon’s painting makes it easier to understand how the painting serves as commentary on the relationship between Cobb and his perception of Mal in Inception. Cobb represents Bacon and Mal represent Dyer, and the two play out, in a dream world, a passionate, yet dysfunctional relationships mirroring the love affair of Francis Bacon and George Dyer.
First, “Study for Head of George Dyer” is, as mentioned, a distorted rendering of Dyer. Comparatively, Mal’s presence in the film is also distorted; she is Cobb’s projection. All the emotions Cobb feels—love, guilt, anger, frustration, fear, sorrow, depression, confusion—create her. Just as Bacon reconstructed Dyer for his portrait, Cobb reconstructs Mal to project her.
Furthermore, Dyer’s presence in Bacon’s life was, at times, temperamental, and Mal’s projected presence is exactly the same way. Overall there are loving moments between Mal and Cobb offset with violent, angry eruptions, making for a wildly unstable relationship between the two in Cobb’s subconscious. During the scene with Bacon’s painting, the instability between Mal and Cobb is clear. Cobb ties rope to a chair and extends the rest out a window to repel down the outside of the estate. Mal sits in the chair, as her weight is a necessary anchor for Cobb to make his decent successfully; he tells her, “Stay right there Mal.” Of course, Mal gets up and foils Cobb’s attempt to repel.
The projection of Mal, like George Dyer, is an addict, consumed with thoughts of her drug of choice. For Mal, the addiction is to the idea incepted in her mind. She is all-consumed with Cobb joining her in the “real” world with their “real” children. Identifying the projected Mal’s obsession with “reality” as an addict obsessed with a substance makes her more understandable. Of course she got up from the chair anchoring Cobb; she has no use for doing anything not serving her addiction.
Moreover, like Dyer’s difficulty fitting in the Bacon’s crowd, the projection of Mal is not well received by Cobb’s team. Likely, Bacon’s crowd saw Dyer as hazardous, exactly how other character’s in Inception perceive the projection of Mal.
Lastly, Mal and Dyer’s deaths were of their own doing. Dyer did not intentionally overdose (according to popular thought), and Mal’s “leap of faith” was not meant as suicide; Mal intended to “die” in her dream-state to return to “reality.” And, for Bacon and Cobb, the deaths of their lovers take over their minds and consume their art. After Dyer’s death, Bacon painted him considerably. Although Cobb no longer “builds” in the dream-world, he still creates Mal obsessively in his subconscious.
Bacon’s “Study for Head of George Dyer” placement in the early scene between Cobb and his projection of Mal intelligently implants, or should I say incepts, viewers with a deeper understanding of the relationship between Cobb and his projection of Mal.
Two of the Oscar categories Inception received nominations for are “Art Direction” and “Visual Effects.” In consideration of this investigation about Francis Bacon’s artwork in the film, wins in both categories seem appropriate.