FridaThursday 20 Mar 2003
Directed by Julie Taymor, starring Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Ashley Judd, Geoffrey Rush, Antonio Banderas, Edward Norton, Valeria Golino, Mia Maestro
The accident that was to shape Frida Kahlo's life occurred in 1925 when a collision between a bus and a tram on her way home from school left the 18-year-old with spinal/pelvic injuries that were to plague her until the day she died. Near the beginning of this biopic, director Julie Taymor marks this defining moment with astonishing visual intensity. The young Mexican girl's broken body lies in a pool of blood among the mangled wreckage as gold dust falls all around, a blue bird escapes from a cage and oranges cascade from a basket. It's a taster of the pleasure-pain eye-fest to come.
Restricted by body casts and months of agonising treatment, Kahlo finds a new outlet for her vivacious spirit and takes to painting. A canopy is built over her bed and fitted with a mirror, introducing the artist to her favourite subject - herself. Walking again, with the help of a stick, Frida goes to see the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), an internationally famous artist with Communist ties. Impressed by both Frida's spirit and the quality of her work, he agrees to become her mentor and eventually she becomes his third wife.
Frida's unhappiness in her personal life - Rivera's ex-wife lives upstairs and he shows no remorse for his constant infidelities ("I've given more affection in a handshake" he tells her when she finds he has slept with one of his models) - informs her painting as much as her physical problems.
Taymor's merging of images from Kahlo's art with scenes in the film is intrinsic to its success. True, Hayek doesn't do much actual painting but at times, in carefully lit tableaux, people become paintings and paintings become people. When Frida goes to New York (or 'Gringolandia' as she called it) with Rivera, the entire experience is represented in a series of collage-style frames in which the brightly coloured Frida moves among layers of black and white postcard scenes. Often the camera enters Frida's inner world as her pain and tequila fuelled visions become the subject of her art (a bath scene seamlessly morphs into the 1938 painting 'What I Saw In the Water'). Frida's most painful moments are represented by macabre theatrics bordering on the surreal: the experience of some horrific surgery is portrayed through the use of skeletal puppets.
The visual trickery should not be allowed to take away from the performances however. Molina is magnificent as Rivera, despite his lumbering physical presence it is not hard to see him as a seducer and he will have you believing fervently in both his love and respect for Frida and his seemingly incurable need to stray from the marital bed. It's important to also note that Kahlo herself was no angel, experimenting with bi-sexuality and conducting affairs of her own, including one that was to have tragic consequences: with the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush).
Hayek produces and stars and it is no secret that the project was a longtime obsession. Having fought for more than ten years to bring the story to the screen, here she proves she was the only one for the role (Penelope Cruz, Jennifer Lopez and - Kahlo's biggest private collector - Madonna, all wanted it…). Deserving of her Best Actress Oscar nomination, it is unlikely she will win, but 'Frida' proves Hayek is made of far better stuff than 'Wild Wild West' and 'Desperado'.
The cameos (Rush, Judd, Norton, Banderas) are nods to the box office, that offer nothing more than occasional distraction (apart from Hayek's sexy tango with Judd, which will not be forgotten quickly), but this project would have done just as well without.
The film's visual style is its strongest card, but it has been touted by some as its biggest fault. It may be true that the only time we get close to learning more about Kahlo herself is in the moments when the camera captures her unique aesthetic vision, but it should be remembered that this vision is the part of herself she chose to share with the world. It is only through her work that we can guess at what went on behind that fabulously constructed exterior.