FILM REVIEW; A Celebrated Artist's Biography, on the Verge of Being a Musical
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: October 25, 2002
The movie biography, a tricky genre to begin with, is never more so than when the subject is an artist. The lives of creative people are sometimes dramatic, but they rarely make satisfying drama, and even well-made, well-acted biopics tend to be dutiful, decorous and lifeless. The psychology of inspiration and the tedium of artistic labor seem to elude the conventions of filmmaking, so that our desire to glimpse the inner workings of genius is teased and thwarted. Instead, we are usually treated to the superficial pageantry of the artist's career -- sex and politics, drinking and fighting, celebrity and ruin.
Occasionally, a movie comes along that transcends these limitations. Julian Schnabel's ''Before Night Falls,'' a passionate exploration of the life of the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, was one. ''Frida,'' Julie Taymor's teeming, color-soaked portrait of the Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo, comes tantalizingly close to being another.
Ms. Taymor's film, adapted by no fewer than four screenwriters from Hayden Herrera's biography, is as restless and determined as its subject, whose painful, promiscuous life has become, almost 50 years after her death, something of a pop-culture legend. But while Kahlo, at least in the account favored by Ms. Herrera and Ms. Taymor, refused to be constrained by her sex, social convention or disability, ''Frida'' is corseted by the norms of high-toned, responsible filmmaking, ticking off important events in Kahlo's life without much insight or feeling.
But when the movie manages to break free -- in bursts of color, imagination, music, sex and over-the-top theatricality -- it honors the artist's brave, anarchic spirit.
Early in the movie, young Frida (Salma Hayek) shows up for her sister's wedding portrait dressed in a man's gray flannel suit, sending up propriety to the delight of her father (Roger Rees) and the chagrin of her mother (Patricia Reyes Spindola). Too often, ''Frida'' squeezes its carnal spirit into respectable clothes, enacting the artistic compromise that is one of its themes. It's a staid film biography that wants most desperately to be a musical -- to bracket its subject's name between gratuitous exclamation points. (The most moving, most memorable scenes are in essence musical numbers, including a torrid tango danced by Ms. Hayek and Ashley Judd that is reason enough to see the movie.)
Ms. Taymor, the theater and puppet artist who brought ''The Lion King'' to Broadway and, in her filmmaking debut, turned Shakespeare's ''Titus Andronicus'' into a piece of grisly, glorious performance art, has a brilliant sense of spectacle. ''Frida,'' which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, begins with a tour of the artist's courtyard garden, where monkeys and peacocks wander among the flowering cactuses. Suddenly, a narrow canopy bed seems to float into the frame, carried like a coffin out into the street -- an image worthy of Gabriel García Márquez. And ''Frida'' is at its best when it forsakes earnest psychological exposition for magic realism, when, instead of trying to explain Kahlo's life, it conjures the moods and sensations that fed her art.
After the deathbed prologue, we encounter Frida as an ardent, headstrong teenager, intoxicated by art, sex and left-wing politics -- spying on the great muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) as he seduces a model, stealing off for a broom-closet tryst with her boyfriend (Diego Luna) and arguing Marxist dialectics on a crowded city bus. That bus is also the scene of her first great catastrophe, an accident (filmed with surreal, hallucinatory intensity) in which her back and pelvis are horribly injured. The second catastrophe, as she puts it later in a moment of disillusionment, was her entanglement with Rivera, an established artist 21 years her senior (and judging from Ms. Hayek and Mr. Molina, at least twice her size), whom she married in 1929.
As the movie presents it, their relationship -- formed from an alloy of political fervor, professional respect and sexual hunger -- was certainly volatile. Shortly after their wedding, Frida discovers that one of Diego's previous wives is living upstairs, cooking the chicken mole that helps stoke his creative fires. And his appetite for sex exceeds his appetite for food: he promises Frida loyalty but not fidelity. What is mole for the gander, however, is mole for the goose and Frida takes on an impressive array of lovers, both men and women, including Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), Josephine Baker and a willowy New Yorker (Saffron Burrows) who had also been one of Diego's conquests.
Ms. Hayek and Mr. Molina are both wonderfully charismatic, but their scenes of recrimination and reconciliation have a dull, actorly flavor that makes the characters seem smaller than life. Although Frida and Diego's bumpy marriage is the narrative heart of the movie, its emotional core resides elsewhere, in Ms. Taymor's captivating disregard of the boundary between fantasy and reality. The bus accident is followed by an eerie animated sequence whose iconography of skeletons and broken body parts comes from Kahlo's painting and from the Mexican folk art that fascinated her. Later, Ms. Taymor renders New York in the 30's as a Dadaist collage complete with paper-doll Fridas and Diegos, and inserts them into scenes from the old ''King Kong.'' Much of Kahlo's later work consisted of self-portraits, and Ms. Taymor ingeniously incorporates these vivid, frightening pictures into the film.
The further it strays from sober naturalism, the better ''Frida'' is. The parade of historical celebrities -- Trotksy, André Breton (the balding fellow with the pipe), Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton) -- is matched by a steady stream of movie stars enjoying florid cameos and trying out silly accents. Ms. Judd, playing the photographer Tina Modotti, bends her usual Kentucky accent around phrases like ''Basta!'' and ''Viva la Revolución!''; Mr. Rush speaks Russian like the Australian he is. So much the better. Frida Kahlo was no realist, and neither, despite her occasional dutiful, desultory efforts, is Ms. Taymor.
''Frida'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has many scenes of sexually liberated, exuberant artists behaving and speaking just as you would expect.
Directed by Julie Taymor; written by Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, based on a book by Hayden Herrera; director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Françoise Bonnot; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Felipe Fernández del Paso; produced by Sarah Green, Salma Hayek, Jay Polstein, Lizz Speed, Nancy Hardin, Lindsay Flickinger and Roberto Sneider; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 122 minutes. This film is rated R.
WITH: Salma Hayek (Frida Kahlo), Alfred Molina (Diego Rivera), Geoffrey Rush (Leon Trotsky), Ashley Judd (Tina Modotti), Antonio Banderas (David Alfaro Siqueiros), Edward Norton (Nelson Rockefeller), Valeria Golino (Lupe Marín), Mia Maestro (Cristina Kahlo), Roger Rees (Guillermo Kahlo), Patricia Reyes Spindola (Matilde Kahlo), Diego Luna (Alejandro Gómez Arias) and Saffron Burrows (Gracie).
October 25, 2002