“With a mesmerizing story even more peculiar than anything she ever committed to canvas, you’ll find yourself thinking again and again, ‘can this really be true?’ Amazingly, it is.”
New biopic captures the spirit of painter Frida Kahlo
With Frida Kahlo, puppeteer-director Julie Taymor has found a live-action subject perfectly suited to her extraordinary talents. Best known for her stunning work conceiving and directing Broadway’s The Lion King, here Taymor brings a surreal vision and a vivid artistry that skillfully mirror Kahlo’s remarkable life.
Mexican-born Salma Hayek throws herself into the role of Kahlo with a fiery intensity. One of the most well-known Mexican artists of all time (and the most coveted female painter in the world), Kahlo first picked up brush and paint at age 18 after nearly being killed in a horrific streetcar accident. Confined to bed with a body’s-worth of broken bones, Kahlo began painting the only subject she could see: herself, in a mirror installed on her bed. It was the start of a lifelong obsession, and out of a tremendous amount of unbearable pain began a career that would go on to document every heartache throughout the rest of her life.
Many of those heartaches – and there were plenty – stemmed from a turbulent 25-year relationship with her mentor and husband, renowned muralist Diego Rivera (played here with terrific gusto by Alfred Molina). In her later years, Kahlo was quoted as saying, “I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down. The other was Diego.” For Kahlo, Diego’s encouragement was paramount to her artistic evolution. But although she respected his work and loved him immeasurably, she could never come to terms with his unrelenting infidelity; somewhat ironic, given the numerous affairs Kahlo had with both men and women.
Frida delves enthusiastically into Kahlo’s idiosyncrasies and contradictions, exploring the impact her incredible experiences had on her worldview. Marriage to a die-hard Stalinist, an affair with exiled Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky, a friendship with Communist photographer Tina Modotti; all played a significant role in shaping Kahlo not only as an artist, but also as a person. In direct contrast to most movie biographies, Taymor does much more than merely depict various moments of Kahlo’s life. Rather, she deftly examines the ways in which they affected Kahlo’s art. For Kahlo, every experience was potential source material, whether it be the constant physical pain she endured as a result of her accident, a miscarriage, her wedding, or even her own birth.
It’s in the dissection of Kahlo’s inspiration that Taymor’s own brilliance as an artist is most clearly evident. As is altogether fitting for Kahlo, whose biography is contained in her body of work, Taymor cleverly incorporates elements of Kahlo’s paintings into the film itself, employing them as a means of conveying not only the details of Kahlo’s life, but also Kahlo’s interpretation of those details. A trip to New York with her husband becomes a black-and-white montage of postcard cutouts. A wedding day argument is frozen in time. The aftermath of her streetcar accident is explained by grotesque puppets wearing surgical scrubs. The effect is exhilarating, much like Kahlo’s work itself.
For her part, Hayek commits herself to Kahlo’s less flattering aspects – boozing, drug abuse, adultery – with the same unbridled enthusiasm she brings to the rest of the film. It was Hayek’s unyielding passion for the project that got Miramax to agree to make the picture in the first place; even then, she was forced to solicit several of her actor friends (Ed Norton, Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas and Y Tu Mama Tambien’s Diego Luna) for minor roles, to add marquee value to the project.
Hayek’s persistence has definitely paid off. Frida is a true work of art, a thrilling journey through a truly astonishing life. At her last exhibition, which she attended on a hospital stretcher, Kahlo stated, “I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy as long as I can paint.” With a mesmerizing story even more peculiar than anything she ever committed to canvas, you’ll find yourself thinking again and again, “can this really be true?” Amazingly, it is.
Michael Rucker writes about film for HX and Empire magazines. He’s also a regular contributor to Gay City News.(Appeared in Gay City News)