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A Unified Theory of the Art Museum Movie

‘The Thomas Crown Affair,’ ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ ‘Ocean’s 8,’ and soon, ‘The Goldfinch’—what do these movies and their pristine settings do for us?

Ringer illustration

When was the last time you went to an art museum?

Maybe you were on vacation and spent an afternoon taking in the unfamiliar paintings and sculptures—or the familiar ones, the biggies, the ones everyone knows about and has to see if they happen to be in the area, like, oh, a little portrait called the Mona Lisa. (Ever heard of it?) Perhaps someone came to town on a visit and absolutely insisted that you take them to the Whitney or the Broad. Maybe it was when you were a kid, on a field trip somewhere, paying more attention to who you sat next to on the bus ride than any of the artwork. Or maybe it was during the summer of 2018, when you and eight other women knocked over the Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with such grace and style that it looked almost easy.

Oh, wait. That was a movie, wasn’t it? Not real life?

“To an art museum” is probably not the first answer most people would offer when deciding where they’d like to be transported by a movie. To the moon? Heck yes. To an interesting and important time in history? For sure. To a fantastical world that expands the boundaries of imagination? Of course! But movies do occasionally take viewers to art museums, and they often make for surprisingly intriguing journeys—even as someone who genuinely likes art museums, I’ve never had as much fun at the Met as I did watching Pierce Brosnan mastermind an art heist at the Met (in 1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair).

At first glance, the movies that are part of the “art museum film canon” (admittedly a clunky working title) don’t have all that much in common. They range in subgenre from thrilling heist films to sillier kids’ movies, with a dash of fright or fantasy in between. So what makes this collection of movies a semiunified canon, one that the film adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling The Goldfinch is about to enter into? Let’s first define what makes a movie an Art Museum Movie: a movie in which the art museum in question is vital to and inextricable from the movie’s overall story; a movie that, basically, is mostly about an art museum; movies such as How to Steal a Million (1966); The Thomas Crown Affair (1999); The Maiden Heist (2009); Museum Hours (2012); Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie (1997); The Da Vinci Code (2006); Ocean’s 8 (2018); and more.

There are honorable mentions, movies that feature a scene or two in an art museum, but not in such a way to qualify as an Art Museum Movie. A few of the most memorable honorable mentions include Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—you, of course, remember the scene when a young Connor Roy trips out to some Seurat and a cover of the Smith’s “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” There are also art museums made Hitchcockian, as in Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, Torn Curtain, and Blackmail; Black Panther, which introduces the audience to grown-up Erik Stevens (Killmonger) in a London art museum; Harry and Sally strolling through the Met’s Temple of Dendur as they verbally dance around the fact that they’re romantically drawn to one another; the Joker and his cronies destroying the Gotham Museum of Art in 1989’s Batman. Ghostbusters II stands out as a borderline honorable mention, as the art museum featured in it carries slightly more weight, but the movie still doesn’t feel like it’s really about an art museum, as much as the art museum is a conduit for the latest NYC hauntings. Then there are museum movies that aren’t set in art museums, specifically: the Night at the Museum series, The Relic, and Bringing Up Baby are set in history or history-adjacent museums (is that what you’d call a paleontology museum?). But even when the art museum in question isn’t the very foundation or setting for the plot at hand, the use of a museum as a set piece can add a layered moment of reflection (like in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) or serve as an important catalyst to the plot of a film (like in Black Panther).

So, the art museum film canon: composed of films in which an art museum features prominently and is important to the plot. But why? What is this doing for the movie viewer?

Despite the fact that art museums, historically, were conceived to bring private art collections to the public, museums aren’t necessarily available to all in real life. They’re often located in big cities, the price of admission can be high, and the institutions aren’t always designed with accessibility and/or inclusion in mind. But movies set in art museums make these rather closed-off, elite locales more accessible, first bringing the audience inside and then almost always tossing the room and disrupting our perception of the museums, be it through a heist, total destruction, magic, mystery, what have you. (“Disruption”: not just a buzzword for Silicon Valley types raising startup money.) Art Museum Movies redefine and recontextualize the museum for the viewer, twisting our understanding of the spaces in either whimsical or troubling ways (or both).

Think about what it means when you say someone’s home “feels like a museum.” It’s not necessarily a compliment. It can mean the home feels cold, static, untouchable. Art Museum Movies tweak this perception, making museums more approachable and touchable (and especially for characters involved in an art heist, who will at some point need to touch the art). Sometimes these movies achieve this by pulling one over on the institution itself through forgery or theft—as in Ocean’s 8, How to Steal a Million, The Forger, The Thomas Crown Affair, Topkapi, Bulldog Jack, and The Maiden Heist. Art heists (in movies) bring a level of excitement to a museum, changing up the norm via an often exhilarating and suspenseful plot to #disrupt the museum. There’s a “damn the man!” vibe at play here, a fun fantasy the viewer can take part in, if at least for a few hours.

Crucially, in many of these cases, the film positions the viewer on the side of the thieves or forgers, further sticking one to the storied cultural institution of the art museum. We’re meant to empathize with Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million when she embarks on a heist to protect her father and his massive forgery business. We’re rooting for Sandra Bullock et al. to succeed in their mission at the Met. (They are not technically stealing art, unless you consider giant diamonds to be art, which you may.) Is Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo’s affair in The Thomas Crown Affair not all the more compelling because of the cat-and-mouse pursuit at play between his life of crime and hers of pursuit? It’s hard to watch The Maiden Heist and not feel for Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman, and William H. Macy, the aging museum guards who steal three pieces of artwork they’re attached to after working at the museum for so long. (Though it’s a mixed bag of emotions, because though their devotion to “their” artwork is somewhat touching and sad, it also veers into all-consuming obsession.)

Or consider Museum Hours, which presents the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna as, perhaps atypically, a place of connection where two lonely strangers can find each other and forge a true friendship. Muppets Most Wanted positions a Kermit look-alike as an art-thieving villain. In Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie, Mr. Bean himself is the disrupter, first falling asleep and honking his nose on the job in London, then causing all kinds of slapstick mayhem—culminating with him ruining Whistler’s Mother by James McNeill Whistler—in Los Angeles. Woman in Gold depicts a woman fighting (and winning) a legal battle against the Austrian art institution and government. The Da Vinci Code disrupts the Louvre with a gruesome murder and ensuing mystery that (spoiler alert?) brings the characters right back to the Louvre in the end. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a kids’ movie adapted from a Newbery Medal–winning novel of the same name, features two children running away from home and living in the Met, a fantasy that’s as exciting as Eloise’s or Kevin McCallister’s prolonged stays at the Plaza Hotel.

The Goldfinch will be the latest entry into the art museum film canon, and it too will feature a disruption of an art museum—in this case in a terrifying manner, as part of the Met is literally blown up by a bomb at the start of Theo Decker’s story. The event changes Theo’s life, in part because he happens to take a piece of the museum with him that day—further disrupting the art museum, and ensuring that the museum and artwork echo through his whole story. With the disturbing museum disruption in The Goldfinch, the thread of disruption in Art Museum Movies shifts, disrupting the museum not for audiences’ gratification or amusement, but to depict real-feeling tragedy. A disruption very much of our times that provides a different value to viewers: not the fun fantasy of a heist or a mystery or a love story, but a meditation on reality. Man, I just wrote “disrupt” so many times; how 2019.

Jessica MacLeish is a pop culture writer and freelance book editor based in Brooklyn (but also on the World Wide Web, tweeting sporadically @jessmacleish).