Back in 1984, Paul Leduc's Frida: Naturaleza Viva offered, in boldly stylised form, an unusually well-rounded portrait of the life and times of artist Frida Kahlo.
This is a story that has everything, from the most intimate pain and pleasure to the great movements of politics, nations and culture in the twentieth century. The biggest challenge for any biographer is to hold all these diverse levels of Kahlo's life together.
It is a challenge at which Salma Hayek, star and co-producer of the new Frida, fails miserably.
The film offers a pleasant, well-acted drift through select highlights of the Kahlo story. There is the bus accident which injured her so severely, the fateful encounter with Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), the affair with Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), the destruction of Rivera's mural in New York, the belated recognition accorded to Kahlo's work by the international art world.
Hayek and her many scriptwriters (four are credited on screen, with the star also acknowledging in interviews the decisive contribution of her partner, Edward Norton) have a very basic understanding of Kahlo as an icon of feminist art. Yes, she painted the personal, the domestic, the feminine. She featured herself in most of her works. But to reduce Kahlo to only this is a travesty.
Frida is an awfully superficial movie. For instance, Kahlo has been described as a "thoroughgoing Surrealist", but you would not know it from this film. André Breton lurks almost unidentified in the background of several scenes, and Kahlo in Paris announces her disdain for French intellectuals before hopping into the sack with a black singer who appears to be Josephine Baker.
These are only a few of the many instances in the film that work to sever Kahlo from any connection with politics and ideas, thus downplaying the true radicality of her art. For Hayek and her associates, Kahlo is just a "magnificent animal" – instinctive, impulsive, close to nature, bubbling with bisexual libido, living out her tough but glorious union with Rivera.
Her art is almost an afterthought to this romance, and it always rendered as a direct, transparent expression of her intimate emotions and sensations.
How different this is from, for example, art historian Terry Smith's authoritative account of Kahlo's art in his book Making the Modern. For Smith, Kahlo was "committed to masquerade as a political project". Her paintings "do not posit any essential femininity or Mexicanness but recognise the necessity of constantly constructing both with the materials to hand." (1)
Hayek, we can safely assume, believes in both essential femininity and essential Mexicanness. The scenes with Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd) say it all: drunkenness, dancing, declarations of grand passions as folk music fills the air. But not a word about the historical significance of Modotti as a political photographer and activist.
Even as a biopic narrowly about Frida-the-woman, this film cops out on a central subject: pain. Physical pain is one of the most difficult experiences to convey in cinema, beyond its outward manifestations of hunched posture, screaming, tears, and so on. Kahlo's virtually lifelong pain is almost an abstract proposition in this movie – it certainly seems to have little bearing on her prodigious love life.
The inability to represent pain quickly leads Julie Taymor (Titus, 1999) to her most grating tendency as a film director. Overtly symbolic or metaphoric passages are pulverised into extravagant fantasy inserts (one of which is animated by the Brothers Quay). These absurdly decorative segments try frantically to express everything that is absent in the film's ploddingly normal dialogue scenes.
Occasionally there is a striking shot – of Frida filmed from an overhead angle, imprisoned within the four posts of her bed, or of her dress, hanging on the line, an image which formed the centre of her powerful painting "My Dress Hangs There". But such moments vanish as soon as they appear, and never help to build an insightful hypothesis about Kahlo's life or its historic significance.
Another artist biopic, Pollock (2000), also edged around issues of political history, but at least it plunged into the murky psychodrama of the painter's creative process with patient commitment. Frida, by contrast, is a merely disposable brochure-guide to a colourful, romantic life.
© Adrian Martin December 2002
1. Terry Smith, Making the Modern: Industry, Art and the Modern in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)