Frida, naturaleza viva

(Frida – Still Life, Paul Leduc, Mexico, 1983)


In a strange but heartening turn of Australian film culture, with its relentless obsession with ephemeral “special events” and fly-by-night festivals, a film retrieved from 12 years previously bounced from a one-off screening to a small but highly appreciated theatrical release.


Frida, naturaleza viva contributes to the mid 1990s resurgence of interest in the life and art of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) – and it makes a fascinating companion to the facsimile publication of her extraordinary, art-and-text-based The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1995).


Paul Leduc’s powerful, impressionistic biopic assumes a basic familiarity with the life and times of artist Kahlo (strikingly played by Ofelia Medina). Figures including Diego Rivera (Juan José Gurrola), Leon Trotsky (Max Kerlow) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (Salvador Sánchez) appear without the usual Hollywood-style exposition, and are summed up in a single, telling phrase or gesture.


Leduc arranges such vivid vignettes – moments of passion and pain, conversations, a song or a dance – in a minimal, unadorned fashion. Part of the motivation for this structure is psychological: the narrative mosaic is presented to us as if it were the reverie of Frida on her sick-bed.


But Leduc is also drawing upon a more avant-garde cinematic tradition (including the films of Amos Gitai or Tony Gatlif) in which landscapes or cultural “texts” (including Kahlo’s paintings) are just as important as the characters.


Kahlo captivates us today because her story combines, in a provocative and often contradictory way, the intimate realms of emotion and intense sensuality with the turbulent events of public, political history. (For an early expression of this renewed interest, see Peter Wollen’s 1979 essay “Mexico/Women/Art” in his Readings and Writings collection, plus the joint 1982 Whitechapel Gallery catalogue on Kahlo and Tina Modotti curated by Wollen and Laura Mulvey.)


The revolutionary era in which Kahlo lived was paradoxical, in that the connections we (sometimes) more easily make today – between Marxism and Freudianism, politics and gender, individual bodies and global occurrences – were only dimly grasped, and often with the disastrous consequence of a redoubling of existing oppressions, especially on women.


Yet Frida (literally) embodied and lived out these problems for all to see. Her art dramatises the necessity of understanding the links between private and public worlds. The film’s subtitle, naturaleza viva meaning “living nature”, the name of a late Kahlo work, is a pun on naturaleza meurte, the Spanish-language term for “still life” – because her biography is inevitably a mixture of life and art veritably torn apart by its internal dynamism. Australian-born Terry Smith’s monumental Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America (University of Chicago Press, 1993) goes deeply into an analysis of this vital configuration of “marginality and modernity” in Kahlo’s artistic practice.


There are times when Leduc’s cinematic style – with its relentlessly slow, tracking shots reminiscent of Peter Greenaway – becomes a little academic or precious. But the overall achievement of the film is intense and affecting.


Conventional biopics, such as the woeful Carrington (1995), tend to skip over the actual works of artists in order to exaggerate the salacious, private-life aspects. Frida, naturaleza viva has more in common with radical protraits of artists such as Jacques Rivette’s La Belle noiseuse (1991), Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch (1974) or Huillet-Straub’s The Chronicle of Anna Magdelena Bach (1968).  It offers an unusually well-rounded portrait of an artist and her work in a volatile historical context.


Paul Leduc [died October 2020] is a director little discussed today in English-language studies beyond some standard reference works on the New Latin American Cinema (by Zuzana Pick and others). His career since the late 1960s spans documentaries and fictions concerning many notable movements and figures in art and/or politics (John Reed, Francis Bacon, Latin dance). The great Brazilian critic-scholar Paulo Antônio Paranaguá listed (in a poll for Positif magazine) Frida, naturaleza viva as one of the greatest films made anywhere during the 1980s. It’s high time to rediscover it.

Hollywood version: Frida

© Adrian Martin September/December 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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