During her lifetime, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo enjoyed moderate success, drawing greater attention later in the century as both feminists and Mexican nationalists recognized her work as exemplar of their respective interests in the personal narrative in art and a pre-Columbian American aesthetic. Kahlo's reputation has burgeoned into icon status, garnering a fan base that includes pop queen Madonna. With the increasing attention of the popular media, a major motion picture was inevitable. That any film produced by a major Hollywood conglomerate would exhibit such depth and such an insightful approach to Kahlo's life is a delightful surprise.
Frida serves as a cipher for the masses of fans who would like to understand the context in which Kahlo's highly personal art arose without slogging through journal entries or lengthy biographies. With a nuanced touch, the filmmakers revive Kahlo--not as the two-dimensional icon, but as the complex personality that struggled to defy the conventional limitations of race, gender and class in Mexico at the turn of the century.
The story of Kahlo's life is requisite for any true understanding of her work--an assemblage with strikingly personal themes for an artist of her time. Kahlo's lifelong partner, painter Diego Rivera (portrayed with finesse by Alfred Molina), acknowledges that her work has transcended his because it emanates from her raw emotional response to the world. "I paint what I see. You paint what is here," explains Rivera, gesturing toward his heart.
The movie chronicles the struggles and triumphs that formed Kahlo's luminous personality and indelible art, and out of all of the familiar objects in Kahlo's oeuvre, it begins with the most appropriate: her four poster bed--the symbol of Kahlo's lifelong struggle with infirmity. Kahlo's buoyant youth was interrupted and her determination cemented after a trolley accident confined her to bed and a restrictive body cast. With the subtle use of shadows and lighting, director Julie Taymor conveys how the pacing and routine of Kahlo's young life was suddenly drawn out into a long stupor of pain and boredom. Concerned for their daughter's increasing disaffection, Kahlo's parents present her with an easel and paints. Watching Kahlo painting her own portrait using the mirror posted over her bed, the viewer begins to understand why portraiture and personal angst were the focus of much of Kahlo's work. There was little else to draw from while in the convalescent's bed.
The deeply personal themes of love and loss, however, always underpin a sharp political edge. Kahlo's art approaches political issues through the back (or, more appropriately, bedroom) door because her most enduring battles occurred outside of the political arena. Refusing the limitations placed on Mexican women of her era, Kahlo flaunts her bisexuality before a crowd of leering men and arrives for the family photo dressed in a man's suit.
Not only does Kahlo rail against gender stereotypes, she scorns the superior attitudes of the gringos in the United States and Europe, bristling at their attempts to exoticise her and Rivera's work. Defying the influence of European modernity in Mexican culture, Kahlo eschews a lacy victorian gown and marries Rivera in a traditional Tehuana dress.
It is likely her rejection of traditional sexual mores allowed her to agree to marry a man as noted for his womanizing as his art. The viewer's heart aches to watch Kahlo struggle to reconcile the compulsive infidelity of the man who serves as her intellectual and spiritual soul mate. It is in the midst of such typically human turmoil that the strength of Kahlo's spirit seems most palpable.
Much of the credit for Kahlo's resuscitation belongs to Salma Hayek. To say that Hayek gives a stunning turn as Kahlo is a misstatement; the actress has so lost herself in Kahlo's personality, the viewer forgets they are not one in the same after five minutes. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the high profile stars, such as Antonio Banderas and Edward Norton, who make brief appearances, drawing too much attention to minor characters. Contemporary cultural icons create blips in the otherwise convincing illusion of Kahlo's world.
If all of the details of the story do not match up precisely with those found in history books, it is irrelevant. The screenwriters appear to have hit the mark when rendering Kahlo's influences and motivations. Besides, Rivera and Kahlo placed little stock themselves in the authoritative version of events. They saw themselves as participants in a process of retrospective myth creation, often lying about their lives for dramatic effect. No other biopic on an artist has so cleverly utilized available technology to incorporate the art itself into the story line. During poignant transitions, shots of Kahlo's paintings melt into live action renditions of the same scene or emerge from the live action landscape. The transformation is magical, and the elegant metamorphosis from life to art feels even more seamless accompanied by the often ethereal score penned by Elliot Goldenthal.
With Frida, the computer graphics industry justifies its existence to the art world, redeeming itself for creating massive orgies of violence and annoying animated sidekicks. Blurring the lines between the reality of Mexican culture and Kahlo's surrealist work is no easy task, and the filmmakers accomplish it with much grace.
To watch this splendid recreation of Kahlo's personality moving about in contact with the iconography she created is a thrilling sight for any fan of her paintings and an enticement to those who are unfamiliar with them.