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The life of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter who’s the subject of Julie Taymor’s movie Frida, offers better moviemaking fodder than most biopics. Kahlo had a complicated relationship with her husband, the philandering Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and a tormented one with her own body, due to a childhood bout with polio and a devastating bus accident that crippled her at 19. But more important, she herself was usually the subject of her own work: Most of her best-known paintings are self-portraits that feature her own charismatic gaze, her theatrical costumes and hairdos, her occasional experiments with cross-dressing, and her famed moustache and unibrow—neither of which was as prominent in life as in Kahlo’s art.
Taymor’s movie is based on Hayden Herrera’s 1983 biography Frida, which rescued Kahlo from obscurity and helped transform her into a neo-feminist icon. One of the most impressive things about the film is that the actors really resemble their real-life counterparts. Alfred Molina, who gained 30 pounds to play Rivera, does a terrific job of radiating sexual charisma across his massive belly. And Salma Hayek, in the title role, is especially impressive. In some of the sex scenes, her body seems a mite too lissome for someone who spent years as an invalid, undergoing constant surgeries, miscarriages, bone settings and resettings, and amputations. But most of the time, her rough skin, moustache, and unibrow look exactly right—added to which, she often has a marvelously ugly, avid expression that totally befits a woman whose doting father once described her as a “devil.” Initially, too, Taymor does a great job of finding exactly the right visual language to tell Frida’s story. The film opens with a breathtaking image: Four men carry a four-poster bed out of a house and load it onto a truck like a coffin. It turns out to contain the dying Frida herself. Swiftly, we flash back to scenes from her wild girlhood, which culminate in the gruesome accident. When the dust clears, the camera discovers Frida crumpled in rubble, pierced by a metal rod and blanketed with blood and gold dust, like a gory church icon. The fantastical surgery scene that follows—a mixture of puppetry and animation created by London-based animators the Brothers Quay—borrows brilliantly from Día de los Muertos celebrations: Skeletons wearing doctors’ and nurses’ outfits hover over the patient, while skulls spin in her eyes.
When Taymor sticks to inventing her own Frida-esque imagery, this film is truly awe-inspiring. Yet gradually, she falls back on a less successful tactic: using actors to realize scenes from Kahlo’s paintings. To suggest Frida and Diego’s wedding, for which the artist famously borrowed a housemaid’s dress, Taymor starts with a painted, doll-like image of the couple—obviously inspired by Kahlo’s 1931 painting Frida and Diego Rivera. Real people dance into the background behind them, until the couple comes to life.
Though this particular moment is charming, others are less so, especially those in which the actors freeze and are transformed into paintings—as when Frida, distraught after her breakup with Diego, dons a man’s suit and cuts her hair, before morphing into Kahlo’s famous 1940 Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair. Part of the problem is that these “paintings” aren’t the real thing at all, but clumsy pastiches made with cheesy, overly obvious brushstrokes—reminiscent of the kind of “paintings” that used to turn up in art-related episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Many times, too, the action suggests a painting without actually showing it, as in the sequence where Frida and Diego venture to New York for his 1931 solo show at the fledgling MoMA. The couple are shown in color, wandering through a collage-like landscape of black-and-white buildings. It’s brilliantly done, but you have to really know Kahlo’s work in order to realize that Taymor is quoting it.
But here’s what’s really wrong with this picture: We hardly ever see Frida painting. In some early scenes, when she’s recovering from the accident, she decorates her body cast with butterflies, as though it were a chrysalis—a terrific image, even though I don’t believe this actually happened until much later in Kahlo’s life. We see her parents affixing a specially designed easel to her sickbed, at which point she starts to paint. Yet after her recovery, though we see plenty about her pursuit of sex, drinking, and her passion for Diego, we learn nothing about how she made her work.
Did Frida also paint when she was feeling fit? When someone commissioned a portrait, did she have her subject over to the studio to pose? When the couple traveled abroad for Diego’s commissions and shows, did she keep on making work, too? Though the answer to all these questions is yes, Taymor gives few clues. “Patch me up so I can paint,” Frida tells her doctor just before he says it’s time to amputate her toes. But for the most part, we only see her working when she’s trapped in a cast or some other gruesome medical apparatus.
Frustratingly, Taymor does convey a strong sense of Diego as an artist, both in terms of his working methods (he used a crew and scaffolding) and his career (he was a sucker for parties and the limelight). So how about just a single shot of Frida’s studio, a close-up of her paints and brushes, or the metal panels she used in place of canvas? (She adopted this suggestion of Diego’s to intensify the relationship between her work and the Mexican retablo—folk art paintings on tin that often depict the saints or commemorate some holy intervention in a mortal crisis.) Even more important, what did Kahlo’s finished paintings actually look like? We see plenty of close-ups of those badly painted imaginative renderings, but we only ever catch brief glimpses of the real stuff.
Similarly, the film unintentionally demeans Kahlo by depicting her as a charming naif, rather than a savvy professional. OK, so she often wore folkloric Tehuana clothes and mimicked folk-art techniques, the better to express her solidarity with working-class Mexicans. But she herself was born bourgeois and was a creature of the international art world besides. Her paintings are far more sophisticated than they initially seem and, even though she downplayed her ambition, she obviously took her work extremely seriously. Furthermore, her romantic partners weren’t limited to Leon Trotsky and a procession of sexy women, as the film suggests. Until her physical condition rendered heterosexual intercourse problematic, she also enjoyed liaisons with many renowned male art world figures, including the sculptor Isamu Noguchi and the Surrealist dealer Julien Levy, who gave her a solo debut at his gallery in New York. The European Surrealists, who discovered Kahlo when some of them decamped for Mexico during World War II, hardly turn up at all. André Breton, the movement’s founder, makes but a cameo appearance in the film, urging her in a hokey French accent to show her work in Paris. Kahlo didn’t consider herself a Surrealist: “I never painted dreams,” she is supposed to have said. “I painted my own reality.” Yet the reality is that her association with the group gave her career a major boost. She participated in their 1940 exhibition in Mexico City and today, her work graces the covers of countless books on the movement. Don’t get me wrong. This intoxicating film is mostly wonderful, if somewhat flawed, and I’d recommend that anyone with even the vaguest interest in the subject run right out and see it. But its depiction of Kahlo as a Princess Diana-style martyr with oodles of style and a vibrant interior life is only part of the truth: She was also the savvy professional who made the paintings that helped transform her into a pop icon.