dir: Julie Taymor
This will not be the definitive account of Frida Kahlo’s life, I am sure. She’s too interesting a person and an artist to remain bound only by what is presented in this biopic as an account of her life. This film will probably do for now as a somewhat superficial precise of the life of this mercurial Mexican artist. And whilst not a terrible film, it suffers from a lacklustre and cliched script and a major confusion as to where to go halfway through the film.
The real star of this film isn’t Salma Hayek, as Kahlo. It’s not Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera, even though at times it seems as if Frida is merely co-starring in a biopic of his life. Which reminds me, how many people would have gone to see a film about notorious Mexican communist revolutionary artist Diego Rivera, simply called Diego? :) Imagine it, huge billboards above buildings, with a coy picture of chubby Alfred Molina pouting seductively into the camera, with one word writ large against the sky: “DIEGO!” Every man and his dog would be beating down the doors of the cinema, surely.
No, this film’s star is certainly Julie Taymor, powerhouse director of this film, and Titus before it, being a bloodthirsty contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Her directorial vision and attention to set design and art direction are what make the film memorable or even noticeable. Other than that she must have decided that the constant pointless cameos from “big” Hollywood stars and the perfunctory script were obstacles that could be surmounted with enough creativity. And she’s almost right, in that this is almost an okay film.
But not quite, which is a shame. Although I generally consider her to be a terrible actress, Salma Hayek does a reasonable job in the lead role. Of course she doesn’t really look anything like Frida Kahlo, but that’s by the by. She gives it her all, which really isn’t that much, and she gets by okay. The problem isn’t how she plays the role, but what the film gives her to do. The story lurches along from historical signpost to “Key Moment” with little regard for narrative flow or exegesis as to what made her tick as an artist.
That becomes the central issue in biopics about artists: what made them great artists? The makers of such films are more than happy to show them as selfish generally alcoholic jerks, but don’t bother to show the hows and the whys on anything more than a superficial level. What aspects of their lives, what experiences shaped them as people and as artists? In this movie the story is content to simply say “well, this happened and then this happened, and then she did this and then went there” ad nauseam. Whilst this may cover the allegedly important moments of her life, it doesn’t really even try to explain what impact each occasion had upon her and the way in which it affected or developed her art. It’s all well and good to show a moment, and then a painting that might have been inspired by that moment, but that doesn’t show how she developed her style or her manner of artistic expression.
In a surreal depiction of one of these milestone moments in her life we see the trolley accident that crippled Kahlo and caused her chronic pain for her entire adult life. It’s depicted in an exquisite manner, with the use of colour and the fanciful positioning of her body creating an image that’s perversely beautiful. Curled in an almost foetal position, with gold dust raining down upon her, her hip is penetrated by a metal bar which shatters her pelvis and ruins her chances of ever walking normally. As unlikely as the image is, it points both to her birth as an artist and as a moment of ‘consummation’ into adulthood (the character specifically tells her first lover that she told the doctor the handrail ‘took’ her virginity, hey it isn’t subtle but it doesn’t pretend to be). These are the kind of ideas that director Taymor excels at representing.
And thus incapacitated and in constant pain, she starts drawing and painting to keep herself occupied. Okay, that’s well and good. It doesn’t however explain why she painted the way she did, what her artistic as opposed to purely personal influences were and soon after when she takes her paintings to Diego Rivera for criticism, what does he see in her work that cannot be expressed to us plebs in the audience. I’m mindful of the difficulty in transferring meaning like that from the story to the audience without it seeming like a lecture, but the best films of this kind at least attempt to approach that essence of talent or genius that made someone worth making a film about.
Because ultimately even the lives of artists can be pretty boring. This story tries to sidestep that by making it seem like Frida and Diego were crucial members of the bohemian, revolutionary communist radical movement in Mexico, and thus linked to something bigger than themselves internationally. Constant mention is made how Diego Rivera is one of the greatest living Mexican artists and how respected he was internationally, and how his every mural was an act of revolution and meaning beyond the simplistic. Thanks, but isn’t the film called Frida?
So much time is spent on the situation where Rivera is commissioned to create a mural for the Rockerfeller Center in the States, and the ensuing trouble that arises that you really wonder why they bothered pretending it was Salma’s film. Essentially it’s saying that Frida’s life was so boring that they needed to pad it out. If it was that boring then Miramax shouldn’t have bothered.
None of this is used to inform the reading of Frida’s work. Whilst she seems happy to be swimming around in this drunken milieu, drunk both on booze and on revolutionary fervour, not for a moment does it seem to influence her work, or at least what we see of it. Her work at the very most is represented as coming purely from the personal. Diego cheated on her? Paint a painting. Had a miscarriage? Paint a painting. Feeling blue? Paint a painting.
That may have been the case, I have no idea. Even for a self-focused artist she seemed to do a shitload of self-portraits. There was also much juxtaposing of incongruous elements, highlighting gender representations and other surrealist stuff I wouldn’t presume to explain. Seeing as she was working at a time when modernism was causing all sorts of ructions in the art world, surrealism and cubism was big, you wouldn’t know it from watching this film.
Though it goes to great lengths to situate the ‘action’ in a historical context, it gives little if any context to the actions and the artistic motivations of its protagonist! I find this quite staggering, I have to say. Whilst Diego seems to be entrenched within a specific timeframe, Kahlo as represented seems to be cut adrift completely, only occasionally interacting with history in order to give us some diversion from Diego’s constant womanising and their perpetual bickering.
There are lines of dialogue so hackneyed in this film that the hacks that write for daytime soaps would have rejected the script in disgust. The fact that it comes at clearly constructed moments that probably never happened doesn’t help. Her interactions with Diego are affected mostly, especially passed the halfway point of the film where they’re not sure where to go. If the rumours are true and at least four people tried to come up with this wretched script, including Hayek’s partner at the time Ed Norton’s rumoured rewrite (who has a tiny cameo as Nelson Rockerfeller), they should have thrown the script out and started again.
Of all people Trotsky, famed communist and former friend of the Soviet powers that were (before they had him and his entire family butchered) appears in the film in the shape of Geoffrey Rush, who has a peculiar knack of appearing in some mighty bizarre roles. On the run from Stalin’s assassins, Trotsky and his wife stay at Frida’s family mansion for awhile. To kill some time before the cold, cold grave Trotsky gets to have a brief affair with Kahlo, of little significance apparently. The film uses it as a punchline delivered in order to make Diego feel bad for being a disloyal prick. It cheapens the reality of what happened, but it hardly matters.
The one thing that the film gets right is the representations of Kahlo’s art interspersed throughout the film, and the transitional edits blending in Kahlo’s work with constructed set pieces that are quite beautiful and have the effect of creating living pictures provoking the only emotion that the film can manage. Truly beautiful, and the art design is exemplary throughout.
Other than that you have to relegate this to the status of a generally enjoyable but ultimately pointless vanity project, with a little bit of interesting history thrown in for good measure.
Of course the occasional nudity that Salma graces us with doesn’t hurt either. It’s not enough to save the film, despite the abundance of her physical charms.
And where the hell was Frida’s moustache? :)
6 times Salma shows glimmers of being more than just an exquisitely beautiful woman who can't act out of 10
"I had two big accidents in my life Diego, the trolley and you... You are by far the worse." - Frida