Willem Dafoe Deconstructs Luxury in this Unforgiving Art-World Allegory

Curator Leonardo Bigazzi and the actor discuss the purpose of art, the illusion of value and the creative imperative for their new art-heist thriller, INSIDE

BY Angel Lambo in Collaborations , Interviews | 14 MAR 23

One man’s defective home security system is another man’s prison. In Vasilis Katsoupis’s Inside (2023), Willem Dafoe plays the art thief Nemo, who tries to make off with an art collector’s priceless set of Egon Schiele paintings but instead becomes trapped in his luxury smart home. With little food or water, and no access to the outside world after a communications failure, he spends the next few months finding creative ways to stay alive.

Willem Dafoe, Inside, Vasilis Katsoupis
Vasilis Katsoupis, INSIDE, 2023, film still. Courtesy: Focus Features; photo: Wolfgang Ennenbach

Inside combines the ascetic survival genre film, like Cast Away (2000), which sees Tom Hanks’s Chuck Noland stranded on a deserted Pacific island, with the art world satire of Ruben Östlund’s The Square (2017).  But what sets this high-stakes psychological thriller apart is its slick use of contemporary artworks. Curator Leonardo Bigazzi covered the colossal walls of the film’s penthouse apartment with pieces ranging from video art and installations, to photography and painting: Maxwell Alexandre, John Armleder, Maurizio Cattelan, Lynn Chadwick, David Horvitz, Amalia Pica and Joanna Piotrowska, to name but a few. To accompany this roll call of both emerging and established artists, Bigazzi commissioned works from Francesco Clemente, Albrecht Fuchs, Petrit Halilaj, Stefanos Rokos, Rayyane Tabet and Alvaro Urbano.

‘The apartment flirts with the dark side of luxury,’ Dafoe told me last month, at the Berlin International Film Festival, where Inside premiered. ‘This big multi-million-dollar penthouse is turned into a prison and all the art – while Nemo appreciates it – hasn't helped him.’ Cue Katsoupis’s iconoclastic reduction of the art object. As he desperately searches for food, Nemo wields a wedge-shaped bronze by Lynn Chadwick (Paper Hat, 1966) to break open the larder; he fails to smash through the windows with one of Alvaro Urbano’s mouldy oranges (Noches en los jardines de España, 2020); and unceremoniously wears a moth costume by Petrit and Shkurte Halilaj (Do you realise there is a rainbow even if it’s night!? (coral), 2020) to keep warm when the thermostat fails.

Maurizio Cattelan's Perfect Day (1999) on the set of Inside
Maurizio Cattelan's Perfect Day (1999) on the set of INSIDE. Courtesy: Focus Features; photo: Wolfgang Ennenbach

These early scenes are captivating, if at times ludicrous, evincing an anti-art energy that one might be tempted to dismiss as attention-seeking. One can almost hear fists punching the air when Nemo brings a Maurizio Cattelan image of his gallerist duct taped to a wall (A Perfect Day, 1999) crashing to the ground. Bigazzi was quick to reassure me that the wanton destruction is not just flippant critique: ‘With a little bit of humour, in a certain meta-cinema dynamic, I played with the idea of abstraction becoming useful,’ he said. ‘Even when the art is used in a violent way, it still responds to a real need. You can't eat art but then a sculpture is what helps you open the fridge.’

Inside reimagines the white cube gallery as a brutalist penthouse, whose savage coolness and sharp corners offer an even less personal and more commercial art viewing experience. Bigazzi explained that the absentee art collector may have taste, but every set design decision was made to foreground his wealth and status. ‘What’s happened in the last 25 to 30 years is the commodification of art,’ Bigazzi continued. ‘We’ve moved from noble families having the heads of hunted animals in their houses to New York financiers putting the heads of artists ­– their artworks – on their walls.’

Willem Dafoe, Inside, Vasilis Katsoupis
Amalia Pica's Memorial for Intersections #15 (2015) on the set of INSIDE. Courtesy: Focus Features; photo: Wolfgang Ennenbach

But when I asked Dafoe about whether he has any ‘trophies’ on display in his home, he confessed to having a rather ambivalent view of art ownership. ‘In my house I have a few pieces from friends, but I don’t put them up unless they’re coming over for dinner,’ he quipped. ‘I just don't have this thing where I want to possess things, to possess paintings or sculptures, and see it every day.’

Dafoe is quite the suffering soul on camera, having channelled Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate (2018). In fact, he owes his self-sacrificing asceticism to the 26 years he spent with the Wooster Group, an experimental theatre company in New York. Character, whether on stage or the big screen, is only revealed through action, he learned. All else is counterfeit.

Willem Dafoe, Inside, Vasilis Katsoupis
Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis' INSIDE. Courtesy: Focus Features; photos: Wolfgang Ennenbach

Inside is no different from a performance art piece,’ he said. ‘Think of Marina Abramović at Sean Kelly (The House with the Ocean View, 2002), where you could watch her living, pissing, doing everything. This film is a little like that because it's about doing, experiencing and inhabiting.’ The actor spent one month filming Inside chronologically on a set in Cologne; his hair and nails grew, and he lost a little weight. By the final scenes, the ungainly Nemo has taken the shape of one of Schiele’s emaciated sitters.

Whatever misgivings Inside seems to have about the value of art are alleviated by Dafoe’s interactions with the works and Bigazzi’s bid to recentre emotion and context in the white cube. ‘The fact that the film’s collector probably bought the Adrian Paci picture because he liked the way it plays with the sofa is problematic,’ Bigazzi told me. ‘But I believe truly that when a work has a strong intrinsic power – a politically charged power – this can be understood in any context.’

Willem Dafoe, Inside, Vasilis Katsoupis
Adrian Paci's Temporary Detention Centre (2007) on the set of INSIDE. Courtesy: Focus Features; photo: Wolfgang Ennenbach

The silver-framed video still of Paci’s Centro di permanenza temporanea (Temporary Detention Centre, 2007) depicts dozens of forlorn Mexican migrants waiting on an aircraft ladder on an empty runway. The image speaks of alienation and suspended hope. Dafoe mirrors these sensations on screen. ‘Vasilis and I wanted to bring out certain political messages within the collection,’ Bigazzi added, ‘because that's what I'm interested in and what I think is relevant today.’

It is easy to miss the conversations on queerness, Blackness and isolation that the art collection tries to ignite when we are watching Dafoe devour a tin of dog food or confect maki rolls from the aquarium’s tropical fish. It does, however, ‘activate’ art in a way that is accessible to wider audiences while leaving easter eggs for its inner circle. ‘I think the nice thing about this film is that the audience makes it,’ Dafoe said. ‘Depending on what their relationship is to art, what their relationship is to collecting, to luxury, to discomfort; all that's going to colour how they experience the movie.’

Willem Dafoe, Inside, Vasilis Katsoupis
Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis' INSIDE. Courtesy: Focus Features; photo Wolfgang Ennenbach

Spoiler: by the end of the film Nemo destroys both designer furniture and expensive art to build a structure that helps him escape through the skylight. His towering assemblage is of such abstract expressionist design it could be mistaken as a Tate Modern Turbine Hall commission. Whatever the many readings of Inside, its final point strikes a gnomic tone. Art saves lives.

INSIDE is released in US theatres on March 17 by Focus Features

Thumbnail and main image: courtesy: Focus Features; photo: Wolfgang Ennenbach

Discover more about INSIDE on Focus Features

Angel Lambo is associate editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin.