Most movies about the lives of famous artists never provide a true sense of what drove the person's creativity. Even in a strongly acted, strongly directed biopic like 2000's "Pollock," for example, the closest it came to explaining why heavily splattered canvases were a breakthrough in modern art was when the painter's wife cryptically proclaimed, "You've done it, Pollock! You've cracked it wide open!"
But in "Frida," a transporting cinematic experience about the life and work of Mexican surrealist Frida Kahlo, director Julie Taymor captures the very essence of Kahlo's creative process through a wondrously rich, freeform visual language that fuses the events of her life with the imagery in her paintings so vividly that the artist's work may take on a striking new significance for anyone who sees the film.
Passionately played by Salma Hayek, who has been personally shepherding this project for seven years, Kahlo comes to life in this picture as a complicated, dynamic, proud and intelligent woman whose frequent hardships informed her art. Opening when she was a plucky high school girl (36-year-old Hayek passes for 16 with remarkable ease), Frida is established as a young woman with a spicy individuality even before the 1925 bus wreck that irreversibly altered her life.
In the hands of Taymor, whose visionary filmmaking intuition was first unleashed in the sumptuous 1999 Shakespeare adaptation "Titus," this crash is a thing of both horror and beauty. The buckling floorboards and shattering windows of the makeshift motor coach become a symphonic slow-motion concussion that fades into a gorgeous but grisly shot of Frida in the wreckage, sprinkled with gold dust, her bare legs and belly bloodied and a piece of metal skewering her pelvis.
A fantastical hospital nightmare sequence follows (created by bizarre stop-motion animators The Brothers Quay) as she undergoes an operation that puts her in a body cast, laying her up for several months during which she begins painting the vibrant self-portraits that become the life-long hallmark of her perseverance and talent.
After learning to walk again, with intermittent difficulty, Frida coquettishly badgers renowned, controversial muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) to assess her work, which he finds at least as beautiful and formidable as she is. Before long Diego is to become both the love of her life and her greatest affliction.
"Frida" uses Kahlo's paintings themselves as exquisite cinematic chapter markers. Scenes rise from or fade into her canvasses, recreating in live-action her heightened coloring, flattened forms and sometimes severe conceptual likenesses (she often over-emphasized her emblematic mono-brow and slight moustache). Her 1931 piece "Frida and Diego," a likeness of the two of them side-by-side, gives rise to the scene of their wedding. The body cast is later recalled in her portrait "The Broken Column," which shows her torso cross-sectioned with a cracked Ionic pillar in place of her spine. And there are numerous other scenes that begin or end in interpretations of her art.
But when the film is not employing such brilliant allusions as a way to tap Kahlo's soul to an extraordinary degree, it suffers from unfortunate bouts of expository dialogue. Used to quickly sum up social philosophies (e.g., Rivera and Kahlo's communist idealism) or fill in backstory, it's the kind of prosaic writing a movie like "Frida" should have been able to avoid.
Taymor makes up for such shortcoming in the penetrating dramatization of the couple's personalities, which are symbolically reflected in their artistic styles. The habitually philandering Rivera was a towering and heavy-set egotist whose vast, imposing murals bristled with social and political themes. The diminutive Kahlo, a woman who valued loyalty over fidelity, frequently painted privately cathartic, autobiographical manifestations on small canvases that nonetheless loudly exclaim her pain and passion.
Hayek's sophisticated performance is a revelation both of her talent and of Frida's spirit. The actress lends the artist a defiant karmic durability, a sensuous femininity and a relish for life that can be felt in her every action, right down to the way she surrenders to a kiss and lingers in the moment afterward.
In portraying the ups and downs of the marriage between Kahlo and Rivera, full as it was of contention and open infidelities, Hayek and Molina impart an intrinsic, paradoxical harmony that lies at the heart of their relationship's endurance. Both had many affairs, Kahlo with men (notably Soviet exile Leon Trotsky, judiciously played by Geoffrey Rush) and women -- something the film hints at early on in a very sexy tango between Hayek and Ashley Judd (playing photographer and political agitator Tina Modotti).
Her bisexuality is explored further in an affair with an American socialite (Saffron Burrows) whom she seduced out of her own husband's bed while they were living in New York in the 1930s. This period also saw her health deteriorate after the miscarriage of an ill-advised pregnancy while Rivera was famously battling with Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton, who also wrote several later drafts of the screenplay) over the image of Vladimir Lenin incorporated into the mural commissioned for the wall of Rockefeller Center lobby.
"Frida" brings all these episodes to life with such resonance it's hard to summarize the film without feeling that justice hasn't been done to some aspect or another. But Taymor and Hayek's uncommonly thorough comprehension of their subject's creative essence is distinctly epitomized in the final scene, which slowly congeals into Kahlo's metaphorical doppelganger self-portrait "The Two Fridas." But to describe this painting, let alone everything it expresses in the wake of the movie, would be impossible. You'll just have to go see "Frida" for yourself.
Run time: 123 mins
In Theaters: Friday 22nd November 2002
Box Office USA: $25.7M
Box Office Worldwide: $56.3M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Production compaines: Miramax Films, Lions Gate Films, Ventanarosa Productions, Handprint Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Fresh: 115 Rotten: 36
IMDB: 7.4 / 10
Director: Julie Taymor
Starring: Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo, Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera, Mía Maestro as Cristina Kahlo, Patricia Reyes Spíndola as Matilde Kahlo, Diego Luna as Alejandro, Roger Rees as Guillermo Kahlo, Ashley Judd as Tina Modotti, Antonio Banderas as David Alfaro Siqueiros, Edward Norton as Nelson Rockefeller, Saffron Burrows as Gracie, Geoffrey Rush as Leon Trotsky, Margarita Sanz as Natalia Trotsky, Omar Rodríguez as André Breton, Lila Downs as Tango Singer