A matter of life and death

A meditation on art and ethics, or Hollywood at its most sentimental? 

For as long as there have been picture galleries, people have thought of them in utopian terms. William Haz-litt, after an ecstatic visit to Dulwich Picture Gallery, said that a gallery of pictures is like a palace of thought - "another universe built of air, of shadows, of colours".

Yet a need for pictures is equally an admission that the paradise which they describe is in fact lost, or elsewhere. This was brilliantly demonstrated in Andrew Marvell's wittily wistful poem, "The Gallery" (1650). Here the poet's soul has become a picture gallery filled with images of his mistress. However, the pictures in Marvell's gallery clearly attest to his mistress's elusiveness - and to the poet's impot-ence - for they depict her in innumerable guises, ranging from a "tender shepherdess" (his favourite) to an "inhuman murderess".

In the 19th century, a love of art was routinely understood to involve a rejection of and by the world; for the decadent Goncourt brothers, art collecting was merely "the index of how women no longer possess the male imagination". They returned from shopping expeditions for rococo objets d'art "as if from a night of sexual debauchery". The corollary to this was that human relationships were considered inimical to the production of great art. Professor Rubek, the sculptor in Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken (1899), is convinced that if he even so much as desires his model, his artistic vision will be lost. There seemed to be a straight choice - love art, or love life.

The ethics of art appreciation are central to What Dreams May Come, a deeply flawed but nonetheless fascinating and visually inventive film directed by the New Zealander Vincent Ward. The central characters are a paediatrician, Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams), and his wife, Annie Collins (Annabella Sciorra), who is both a painter and curator of a modern art gallery. Their marriage, though a success on the surface, leads to disaster, with them and their two children dying violent deaths. The bulk of the film deals with their action-packed afterlives in heaven and hell, but the happy resolution of the film requires transcendence - if not outright rejection - of art and culture.

Their peaches-and-cream kiddies are the first to go, killed in a car crash. Annie usually drives them to school, but on the fateful day she has had to attend a meeting at her gallery. She blames herself and subsequently attempts suicide by slitting her wrists. However, as her pictures were already a yuppie-angst mixture of Caspar David Friedrich and Francis Bacon, we are made to believe that Annie was an accident waiting to happen. Throughout the film she is shown communicating with Chris while looking at paintings, rather than face to face. Thus art (and, of course, careerist women) gets the blame.

Chris, who had tried and failed to get his eldest son to be a mirror image of himself, is equally obsessed by painting and routinely talks of women's breasts as "Rubensesque". He is killed when he goes to help a motorist trapped in a motorway pile-up during atrocious weather. (I don't recall any art-related symptoms here - unless the pile-up was caused by an unhealthy appreciation of Warhol's car crash pictures.)

Despite his failings, Chris goes to heaven, where the special effects get big-budget and the plot becomes byzantine. Heaven, we learn, is "big enough for everyone to have their own private universe". Chris's fantasy is a gooey mixture of Monet and action painting: he slips and slides through a day-glo swamp that's made of brightly coloured oil paint. Just when we're beginning to think that Chris's heaven is more ecological disaster than ectoplasmic kindergarten, a chirpy black man ticks him off: "Fantasy's not what you need right now."

Chris soon discovers that Annie has succeeded in committing suicide and is now in hell. The rest of What Dreams May Come deals with his attempts to rescue her. Though the film never dispenses with art-inspired fantasy (landscapes by John Martin and Victorian fairy painting are both pastiched), hell is marked out as the realm of culture rather than nature - or, to be more precise, the realm of European culture. Chris's guide is a former shrink, played by Max von Sydow and the only figure in the film clearly labelled "Olde World": Sydow speaks with a strong accent and does a sort of reprise of his role in Bergman's The Seventh Seal.

Von Sydow takes Chris through a cavernous neo-classical mausoleum, claustrophobically lagged with antique leather-bound books, to a collapsed gothic pile, where a zombiefied Annie is languishing. Hell seems to be for the self-absorbed, those who think and read too much. When the couple regain heaven, it has become a flower-filled hanging garden, and they gaze longingly at each other. No oil-stained canvas comes between them now. If only soggy, simpering Robin Williams didn't bear such an unnerving resemblance to George Bush . . .

In the end, it's probably just as well that Williams does look like Bush, because this film comes with a strong conservative agenda. It ends up asserting traditional family values. The type of woman it fears most is someone like the Britpack artist Tracey Emin, who is almost a cartoon version of the destructive creator. Emin had two abortions by her late twenties. Just after her second, when she was still an art student, she took all her paintings into the courtyard of the Royal College and smashed them up with a hammer. It took a whole day and by the time she had finished her hands were bleeding. "I downed brushes," she said. "I downed the whole notion of these ideas of creativity. After termination, I couldn't tolerate the idea of painting any more."

Of course, Emin soon went back to art-making with a vengeance. The childless peintre maudit is alive and kicking.

"What Dreams May Come" (15) is on general release.
James Hall's "The World as Sculpture" will be published by Chatto & Windus later this year

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?