Mona Lisa Smile tells the story of an art teacher’s stint at Wellesley College. The establishment (as well as most of the student body) believes that it trains women to be the wives of lawyers, businessmen and senators. She believes that it should train them to be lawyers, businesswomen and senators themselves. Considering that the story claims to be loosely based on Hillary Clinton’s stay at Wellesley, you can see how there’s a way of keeping everyone happy. A flippant description would be that it’s Dead Poets Society with estrogen. The sad thing is, the movie does little to rise above that description. It takes an amazing cast and a premise with considerable potential for anger, and waters it all down to something eminently forgettable.
It does, however, have one scene that absolutely got to me. As an art teacher, Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) has a tough time in the beginning. Five minutes into her first lecture, she finds that her students already know the material and have nothing but scorn for her. She regroups and, in the second lecture, introduces them to Soutine’s Carcass – an ugly ass painting if I ever saw one. It is the first in a series of confrontational lectures where she challenges her class to see beyond what they traditionally consider “art”. It all culminates in a scene where she takes them outside the classroom, to a gallery that has just received a new painting by Jackson Pollock. One of the students starts making a wisecrack about it when she interrupts her with:
Do me a favor. Do yourselves a favor. Stop talking and look. You’re not required to write a paper. You’re not even required to like it. You are required… to consider it. That’s your only assignment today. When you’re done, you may leave.
They stand there, looking at one of Pollock’s famous drip paintings (One, I think). Their fascination is infectious. Suddenly, Pollock’s work no longer looks like just so much paint dripped on canvas. It looks like art.