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Frida (Julie Taymor) 2002


    After her bracingly original debut feature, the time-hopping, phantasmagorical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus, expectations were high for stage director turned filmmaker Julie Taymor’s follow-up, but with the arrival of Frida, a rather routine biopic that traces the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek), it’s tough not to be a bit disappointed, even if the end result is a better than average exploration of an artist’s life. Perhaps the most shocking thing about Frida is how darned conventional its script is. Hewing quite closely to Hollywood’s rulebook for this sort of picture, the film traces the life and loves of Kahlo from maturation to death, pausing along the way occasionally to offer an “edgy” sexual escapade or two. The vast majority of the running time is spent examining the relationship and eventual marriage between Kahlo and famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), much to the detriment of the picture. Though their involvement is fraught with compromises and drama (Diego says he’s “physiologically incapable of fidelity” and Frida describes him as “the best of friends and the worst of husbands”) we see so many lovey-dovey scenes between the two that any edge that’s built up when we see them cavorting sexually with celebrities and same-sex partners is dulled away completely. The point behind watching all of this settles down into a predictable “love conquers all” message, and when using it to examine Frida as an artist it fails almost completely to enlighten. Never does the film wholly answer the more complex questions raised like whether Rivera’s attraction toward Kahlo is based on a physical attraction, an aesthetic one, a sympathetic one, or a combination of the three.


    Perhaps, though, Frida’s focus on the soap opera tale that makes up its subject’s personal is for the best. Whenever the script tries to visually explain her art (usually in a visually stunning sequence in which the painting in question springs to life via painterly CGI effects) it ends ups presenting a totally reductive 1:1 correlation between the events in Frida’s life and the images on her canvas. Such a simple reading of her work suggests that her art has no real meaning beyond aesthetic appeal for those not intimate with her autobiographical particulars, and as such seems to short change the artist’s real-life output. Most of the screenplay’s treatment of her character seems similarly slight, unfortunately, though Hayek does her best to imbue the role with real conviction. We see the school aged Frida having lots of sex (though it’s the sanitized Hollywood version of sex that’s kept mostly off-screen) and dressing defiantly like a man for a family photograph, but her free-spirited defiance is meant to be taken for granted. A horrific, expertly staged traumatic trolley accident early on forces Kahlo to remain in bed for an extended period, and the movie wants us to look at her body cast as a literal cocoon from which she emerges, fully formed, as an artist, but I don’t think it does her a service by suggesting the metamorphosis from frisky schoolgirl to profound artist occurs overnight. Because she’s so sketchily drawn, it’s tough not to be more interested by the compulsive complexities that exist in her eventual husband, Diego. Alfred Molina dwarfs Hayek’s Kahlo with both the intensity of his performance and his physical presence.


    Though Frida offers only what feels like a surface level recap of its subject’s life, and as a result feels rather light on substance, Taymor ensures that it has style to burn. Countless directorial embellishments show off her visual flair. Scene transitions are handled more adeptly than usual, preserving the motion from one scene to next. The camerawork is often excitingly mobile (the highlight being a tango between Hayek and Ashley Judd). A sometimes color corrected palette heightens the reality of what’s happening in the film. A trip to New York where we see Diego and Frida walk through a metropolis composed entirely of postcards is only challenged in creative inspiration by the nightmarish surgery scene that recycles imagery from the Mexican Day of the Dead. It’s a shame that Taymor’s visual sensibilities can’t do more to sell the drama to us. The parade of celebrity cameos that pop up throughout the movie don’t do much to help or hinder the believability of the scenario, but they do certainly remind you that the film is far more a creation of studio interests than a lone artistic vision. Hopefully, next time she picks up her brush, Taymor will be able to paint in colors of her choosing.


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Jeremy Heilman