Movie review by Greg Carlson
Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is as worthy a subject for a biopic as any visual artist – her incredible images, including some 200 self-portraits, defy both convention and easy description. She crossed paths with a number of the 20th century’s most compelling cultural and political figures, including Diego Rivera (twice her husband), Josephine Baker, Nelson Rockefeller, and Leon Trotsky. Her short life – she died at 47 – was so eventful, its no wonder that a parade of Hollywood players has queued up over the past few years attempting to bring Kahlo’s story to the silver screen. Salma Hayek won the Frida sweepstakes, but the grand prize is something of a monkey’s paw, as any movie version of such an amazing person’s life is bound to rile many and please few.
Hayek, whose iron-will and tenacity helped her to beat out the likes of Kahlo wannabes Madonna and Jennifer Lopez for the rights to the project, is certainly the best choice among the trio, but her healthy glow and voluptuous body ironically deny the torturous realities Kahlo suffered her entire adulthood. In 1925, at the age of 18, Kahlo nearly died in a trolley car/bus accident: when the vehicles collided, she was left with broken ribs and collarbone, a badly damaged spinal column, and a horribly fractured leg. Worse yet, she was impaled on a handrail that entered her back and exited her genitals. In the movie, the trauma is depicted as a kind of terrible beauty – a defining moment that will guide much of what is to follow.
“Frida” is the second feature from acclaimed stage director Julie Taymor, whose cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Titus” featured sensuous, eye-popping art direction and wonderfully nuanced performances. As a filmmaker, Taymor was on surer ground with the Shakespeare – like so many movie biographies, “Frida” adopts the kind of plodding, chronological fidelity to important incidents that prohibits a free expression or exploration of deeper themes. Only when she lets loose with set-pieces built around her signature design style does Taymor find a voice for her take on Kahlo: paintings come to life in vibrant color, suspended in space, and fluctuating between two and three dimensions – a very impressive effect.
Taymor also enlists the aid of the miraculous Quay Brothers, who created a stop-motion sequence with Day of the Dead-style skeletons to depict Frida’s mental anguish post-accident. Yet another terrific montage uses a cut-out collage approach to crystallize Kahlo’s experience in NYC: she sees herself as Fay Wray and Rivera (Alfred Molina, excellent as ever, and only hampered by shortcomings in the screenplay) as King Kong. This single moment sums up the potent pair’s relationship much better than the more predictable (and frequent) arguments over Rivera’s philandering. The complexities of Rivera and Kahlo’s relationship never fully translate onto the screen, no matter how spirited the performances by the two leads.
Hayek and Molina fare better than the vast majority of the other players, who glide in and out of the film in nothing more than glorified cameos (Antonio Banderas as David Siqueiros, Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky, Ashley Judd as Tina Modotti, and Hayek’s real-life love – and apparent ghost re-writer – Edward Norton as Rockefeller). Just as it samples actors, so too does “Frida” only dabble in the political life that remains central to an understanding of Kahlo – the artist’s left-wing associations with Trotskyism and her unapologetic fascination with Stalin are virtually invisible in the movie, despite the unflattering, thoroughly goofball depiction of Frida’s tryst with Rush’s pointy-bearded Trotsky. Had “Frida” centered on ideas instead of occurrences and episodes, it might have satiated more Kahlo fanatics – but it would also have sold fewer tickets, and when it comes to moviemaking, capital trumps collectivity every time.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader.