Eighties art icon Robert Mapplethorpe was known for his soft, striking photos of flowers and his transgressive depictions of gay men and their members. His first exhibitions ran concurrently, separating the subject matter so as not to scare off potential buyers. Visionary documentarian Ondi Timoner’s first narrative feature, Mapplethorpe, captures a similar duality within this brilliant artist. With a phenomenal performance from lead Matt Smith and arresting historical deference, it’s no wonder the film was a runner-up for the Tribeca Film Festival’s audience award.
The film depicts much of Robert Mapplethorpe’s life, starting with his and Patti Smith’s (Marianne Rendón) bohemian romance and stretching to his untimely death. It’s a story of vision, as Mapplethorpe foregoes his beloved collages and drawings for the camera. Perhaps most importantly, though, Mapplethorpe is a story of fractured identity. Mapplethorpe tries to stifle his gay desire, undoubtedly propelled by his religious, hippie-hating parents. “If you leave, I’ll become gay,” he pleads with Patti after she learns of his affairs.
As the photographer uncovers his beloved medium and iconic subjects, he does so with unquestioning voracity. His most significant relationship, that with collector Sam Wagstaff, eventually breaks under the weight of that gluttony. No matter how many of his own relationships Mapplethorpe destroys (and, spoiler alert, he destroys practically all of them), it’s clear there’s loneliness beneath his acerbic exterior. This is a man who had to kill his former self to become such a memorable artist.
This desolation and complexity is undoubtedly driven by Matt Smith’s jaw-dropping performance as Mapplethorpe. Whether tenderly pursuing a new beau or tyrannically commanding a photoshoot, Smith imbues all of Mapplethorpe’s actions with pathos and intricacy. Smith’s character says and does a lot of blush-worthy stuff in this film, but Smith is game for it all.
New York City gives a similarly vibrant performance as the film’s aesthetic centerpiece, something for which director Timoner and production designer Jonah Markowitz (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) deserve unending credit. From the Chelsea Hotel at its height of bohemia to the mysterious leather bars of the early 1980s, Mapplethorpe evokes tangible time and place in its every frame. Cinematographer Nancy Schreiber plays an important role here, too, as her Super 16 footage conjures nostalgia and verisimilitude.
This is not a flattering portrayal of Mapplethorpe, which may irk fans of the iconic artist—but it’s not a defamatory story, either. Mapplethorpe was a complicated person, and the film admirably leans into that complexity, from his substance abuse issues to his work’s racially fetishistic overtones. As Ondi Timoner said following the Tribeca screening, this film is about people who are “so fast and so rapidly black and white that they start to turn gray.” This zoetrope-esque blurring ultimately lends Mapplethorpe its edge, as audiences will feel unable to tear themselves away from its protagonist’s lavish self-destruction.