At the end of Frida,
the new film by Julie Taymor, the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred
Molina) says of his wife, the painter Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek), that "never
before has a woman committed such agonised poetry to canvas". It’s a fitting
remark for a serial philanderer: one is reminded of Jonathan Miller’s famously
insulting compliment to Susan Sontag, that she was "the smartest woman
in America". But it carries echoes of the filmmaker, too: Taymor’s debut
film, Titus, was a
piece of agonised poetry which I consider to be one of the greatest films of
the past 20 years, by woman or man. And, if she will excuse me for saying so,
it is the best movie by a female director I’ve ever seen.
Frida, however, is much less successful. A lot of the blame has to
be laid at the feet of the five different people responsible for writing the
thing, including the author of the biography on which the film was based. The
screenplay fails on every level, from wooden lines ("You were my comrade,
but you were never my husband"), through characters who are introduced,
never to reappear (Antonio Banderas as David Alfaro Siqueiros) and ultimately
the lack of any kind of narrative structure or dramatic arc.
The two leads never transcend the writing to create vividly memorable three-dimensional
characters; whether this is the fault of the actors, the director, or the script
is difficult to say. When Rivera’s ex-wife tells Kahlo that "it’s hard
to believe that he’s had half the women in this room," she’s right: it
is hard to believe. And Salma Hayek, who produced the film as well
as starring in it, seems to have spent so much energy getting the movie made
that there was precious little left over for acting. Occasionally we will see
a glint in her eye, a flash of strength and determination, but more often we
simply don’t understand what she’s doing. What makes her fall in love with Rivera?
Why does she tell him that she won’t sleep with him as a prelude to sleeping
with him? Why does she marry him, and, more puzzling still, why does she remarry
him? The central problem of this film is that it is mainly a portrait of a relationship,
and that relationship never really comes to life.
It would also seem that a director of Taymor’s unbounded imagination is too
constrained by the biopic format to do her talent justice. On the one hand,
the fact that she’s telling a real story prevents her from creating from whole
cloth the kind of visually stunning worlds that brought her such acclaim in
both Titus and The
Lion King. On the other hand, her attempts to insert affective, allegorical
sequences, with puppets or montage or paintings morphing into life, sit uneasily
in what is otherwise a relatively straight-up chronological story.
Mundane considerations such as how to show the passage of time don’t apply
in a film like Titus, but here they’re important: when Kahlo goes from
having short hair in one scene to long hair the next, it looks like a continuity
error rather than an indication that a year or more must have passed. And while
Taymor has a couple of visually stunning tableaux (Kahlo, after her trolleybus
accident, lying on the broken floor of the vehicle, covered in blood and gold
dust; later, her plaster cast being removed from her torso, cracked open like
a chrysalis to reveal her perfect, dust-covered breasts) they’re occasional
flashes of inspiration rather than definining every scene of the film like they
did in Titus.
It’s also sad that there’s absolutely no indication of Kahlo’s development
as an artist. It’s as though she received her gift from the gods at an early
age: she’s a fully-developed painter from the minute we see her pick up a brush.
In fact, we learn more about Rivera as an artist than we do about Kahlo: the
way he struggled with the contradictions of a communist painting murals for
the national palace; how he sold out and crashed out in New York. When Kahlo
goes to Paris, by contrast, we don’t see her art once: all we see is her living
the high life and seducing Josephine Baker.
Even the score, by Elliot Goldenthal (Mr Julie Taymor), shrinks like a violet
exposed to the harsh Mexican sun: where Goldenthal was strong and to the fore
in Titus, he’s weak and backgrounded here. The one time you really
notice the music is in the scene where Leon Trotsky (an utterly unconvincing
Geoffrey Rush) arrives by motorcade and pulls up outside Kahlo’s father’s house.
For some reason, Goldenthal picks this moment to unleash one of his post-minimalist
Glass-Nyman pastiches: one assumes it symbolises the arrival of the European
into Mexico, but it just seems out of place in practice.
Only praise, on the other hand, should go to the cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto
(Amores Perros). He
slings the camera like a cowboy, but is completely in control the whole time,
and gets stunning shots of both interiors and the Mexican landscape. I can’t
wait to see what he does with Curtis Hanson in 8
Much as I’d love to, I can’t recommend this film. There’s a lot to like in
it, and I know many boys and girls who are likely to go for the Frida Kahlo-Josephine
Baker sex scene alone. But if it’s a great biopic of a great artist you’re looking
for, I’d point you in the direction of Bird,
instead. And if it’s a great picture by a great artist you’re looking
for, stick to Titus.