Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Frida (2002)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

I think it's safe to say that if a non-artsy person were put on the spot to name a famous female artist, the two most popular answers would be Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo. The former's work isn't to my taste, though I appreciate what she's done for our understanding of female anatomy, but I consider myself a big fan of the latter's unique and introspective paintings. Julie Taymor's biopic (adapted from Hayden Herrera's biography) stars Salma Hayek as the iconic Mexican artist. Shortly after meeting famed socialist muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), Frida is injured in a bus accident, causing her to suffer various leg and spine pains/complications for the rest of her life. While recuperating she turns to drawing and painting in bed, often using herself as a subject since that's what she knows best. She shows her work to Rivera, who is impressed by her natural talents, and the two eventually strike up an intense and chaotic romance that would last through their lifetimes.

Navigating Frida's life from her time as a student in Mexico City (and dating Diego Luna!) through her death in 1954, the script weaves a number of significant events and the coinciding paintings but focuses primarily on her relationship with Rivera. Their volatile marriage(s)- characterized by Rivera's insatiable sexual appetite for other women and Frida's grudging trysts in response (including ones with Josephine Baker and Leon Trotsky! Me-ow!)- is shown through the years as Rivera's Communist philosophy becomes just as famous as his public murals. Their run-ins with artists like Tina Modotti, David Siqueiros, and Andre Breton are briefly documented, as well as their troubled stint in New York when Rivera is commissioned for the now-infamous Rockefeller mural. It was a bit of a re-tread of my 20th Century Mexican Art class in sophomore year of college, so that was exciting.

Though much of the film seems focused on Rivera's activities, everything is shown through Frida's point of view. Never comfortable in the background, she is passionate and outspoken throughout her life, staying true to her convictions and pouring out her soul through her emotional and stunning paintings. Hayek is very strong in the title role, appropriately sensual, bold, and sympathetic, though a little bit glammed up. Having fought for the part, she is clearly very dedicated to the performance, and I couldn't imagine anyone doing a better job. Molina is also great as the self-absorbed but unquestionably magnetic Diego Rivera, an artist I'm admittedly not a huge fan of but whose work and goals I do respect. And of course it would have been nice for someone who is actually Mexican to play him, but Molina is so talented an actor I can't actually complain that much. It's not like he was in brownface or anything. The two of them dominate the film, but appearances from Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas, Geoffrey Rush, and Edward Norton (who also worked on the script) round out the impressive supporting cast.

Of course my favorite parts of the film (aside from the gorgeous Brothers Quay-animated stop-motion sequence) were the recreations of Frida's paintings into interactive works of art. Taymor incorporates a painterly and wonderfully illusionistic animated style to bring the works to life as commentary on the artist's experiences. Hayek fades in and out of the art as it transforms around her, and it was just beautiful to watch. I loved the collage technique as well. I wish more of the film had been focused on her art and artistic experiences (her meeting with Breton was downgraded to a 30-second scene? What about his Surrealist assignation of her work and subsequent Paris exhibition? The Louvre bought one of her paintings!), as well as the influence of indigenous Mexican culture on her art and persona. But I guess that's less interesting to most viewers? I get that her relationship with Rivera was a major force in her life but I think it was too much of a focus in the film.

A woman who could easily have been defined by her constant suffering and physical pain, Frida Kahlo instead displayed remarkable strength and élan, defying her "Judas of a body" to produce some of the most imaginative and impactful paintings modern art history has known. She is remembered for her fierce independence and originality, and while this movie does skip over and over-dramatize certain events, in the end I do think it did this remarkable woman's character justice.


Pair This Movie With: Aw gee, I haven't seen enough artist biopics, it's a shame! I'm thinking maybe Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus would be an interesting pairing. Ladies making art that's better than that of their jerk husbands! This is a theme I enjoy.


  1. Hey there.

    Great movie, great post.

    I remember being astonished that a big buyer of her work was Edward G. Robinson... who was a great patron of the arts apparently.

  2. No, Fur was terrible. I would probably put it with something like... damn. I really don't know.

  3. my favorite perfromance from salma and alfred molina. just an exquisite movie. those scenes when the art would come to life? flawless.

  4. Only Salma Hayek could make a unibrow look so sexy.