Inside is an enigmatic little film that toes the line between art film and survivalist thriller. Willem Dafoe is incredible as an art thief named Nemo, essentially the only character in the film, who gets trapped in a swanky penthouse apartment after the security system shuts him in. As he faces the prospect of starvation and insanity, the thermostat malfunctions, oscillating between freezing cold and suffocating heat, and Nemo must figure out a way to survive when only surrounded by extreme luxury and wealth, but few things of substance.
It’s an immensely clever film with a towering performance, though it contains enough ambiguity to keep you thinking for quite some time. The film is open to interpretation and invites a wide range of theories about the meaning of art and survival. Its director, Vasilis Katsoupis, spoke with MovieWeb about these themes, Dafoe, and the world of Inside.
What Is Inside (and Art) Actually About?
As Nemo struggles for survival in an elitist Manhattan apartment, Inside interrogates the viewer’s own relationship to art and meaning itself. Hearkening back to the COVID lockdowns, in a way, Inside asks just how much art matters to our lives and survival. When everything falls apart and the world is ending, which is more important, a can of beans, or a million-dollar painting? Is art just a luxury for those who can afford it, fancy clothing worn by capital, or is it something more?
“What it says about art?” asked Katsoupis, repeating the question. “As you said, most people now perceive art, even the people that don’t know how to perceive art, as an investment. They only care if an artwork gets a huge price or makes news to people, they only care about the money behind it. Not about aesthetics, not about how it can fill their soul, because I really do believe art fills the soul. But that’s the thing in the film. As you say, it works as a commodity, as value. But also, on the other side, we tend to forget that art, from the beginning of our civilization, was a way for people to communicate, and to communicate between the centuries.” Katsoupis elaborated:
So I would argue that we tend to know about ancient civilizations through their artworks, that was the only thing they left. We find sculptures, we find paintings in caves, so that was a way of communicating. So for me in my film, through the art works, the absent owner of the house is communicating and starts a dialogue with Nemo, and the art works also reflect his personality and human character. That was a vehicle that I really needed to give a sort of dialogue between Nemo and the environment surrounding him.
On Selecting the Works of Art for Inside
It’s a supreme irony that the art thief is stuck in a ridiculously expensive apartment surrounded by treasured works of art, a situation that forces him and the viewer to reevaluate what art means and is worth. These art pieces are extremely important to Inside; as Katsoupis says, the film is essentially a dialogue between Dafoe’s character and the art surrounding him.
It was a careful, meticulous process, choosing which artworks should adorn the apartment, and how to commission new ones. Katsoupis and the curator Leonardo Bigazzi put together a stunning display of art, which is listed in the credits the same way some films list the songs in their soundtrack.
“In the beginning, I did extensive research on what pieces of art were needed for the film,” said Katsoupis. “I love art, but I don’t know that extent of a collection. What we needed from the beginning of the film was our collection and our artwork to be legit. So every person that sees the collection would say, ‘Okay, I believe this,’ and that was a very difficult task to make. So I was lucky enough to have Leonardo Bigazzi be involved as an art curator.” Katsoupis continued:
I needed these artworks to reflect the personality of the owner, the character of the owner. Also, the art was to tell stories. So you have the Maurizio Cattelan artwork of a gallerist, it’s a guy that is trapped, so Nemo feels the same. Also, Joanna Piotrowska’s photographs, where she asked some friends to make shelters inside their houses. And this is what also Nemo does. He built a shelter inside this huge apartment […] But also, there were some works that were commissioned from the very beginning, like the portrait of the owner […] I feel extremely honored that Francesco Clemente did this amazing watercolor that’s just for our film.
“Willem’s a huge star,” explained Katsoupis, “so I needed another huge star from the other side [the side of art] to start these conversations.” And so, Willem Dafoe had to get head-to-head with fine art.
Katsoupis on Willem Dafoe in Inside
In order to embody a man fighting for his survival, with only luxury works of art as his surroundings, Dafoe became a work of art himself. In a way, he always has been. “Willem Dafoe is a work of art by himself. So we started we start from there,” said Katsoupis. He elaborated:
For this film, we needed an actor that people would love to watch. I think he is one of these actors that, even if he stays silent in a frame and just looks at you and does nothing, you will just be hypnotized by his performance. In my film, because there is not much style, I needed an actor who is very physical. I mean, with Willem, just a small movement of the finger tells a story. His body tells a story; his face really acts as though it’s the story […] It was amazing, just how his feet works in climbing.
“Willem also was a big contributor in the narrative, he was coming up with ideas,” continued Katsoupis. “He never said no to an idea of mine, never, and I loved how we worked in this way […] At the end of the day, that was 30% to 40% influenced by him improvising stuff, and that was a fantastic thing that happened.”
Inside seems like a true fusion between actor and director, form and content. Swirling in a miasma of creativity, ultimately, this is Katsoupis’ film, this is Dafoe’s film, and this is art’s film. From Focus Features, Inside will be in theaters on March 17.