Before I watched this film I was led to believe the movie was
a reasonably faithful account of the life of famed bisexual artist
and political activist Frida Kahlo.
Unfortunately if you turn your head away for a few seconds at
the wrong time you'll miss all the evidence there was that Kahlo
was a famed womaniser. This blink-and-you'll-miss-it bisexuality
is the biggest disappointment in an otherwise powerful tribute
to Kahlo's life.
I came into the film knowing quite a bit already about Frida
Kahlo, but as with all biographical films it is safer to assume
that the average audience member knows little or nothing about
the subject and this is what the film does so successfully. It
gives us all the motivations, all the grounding for Frida's pathology.
Every decision she makes, every success and every misstep seems
so natural, as if yes, this feels right, this is what the woman
we have come to know would do. Frida is breathtaking
in its authenticity and acute attention to detail.
Kahlo, born with a naturally rebellious streak, an insatiable
thirst for success and immense talent, is nothing short of a force
of nature. Her passions are tremendous, and when thwarted she
produced some of her most moving works of art, as if her emotions
simply exploded onto the canvas. For all that, her works are brutal
and honest, but rarely self-indulgent. With her husband Diego
Rivera, she helped shape an artistic movement in Mexico. Salma
Hayek plays this ambitious side of Frida courageously, never holding
back, always attacking the role with a fierce intensity it is
difficult not to respond to. She takes on the other characters
in the film and either charms them to her cause or breaks them
to her will - all but Rivera who seems to have her measure, and
her heart, right from the beginning.
Kahlo's life and art were shaped quite early on by a horrific
accident that drove a metal rod through her spine and all-but
destroyed her pelvis. Through sheer force of will Frida Kahlo
walked and even danced again (as shown by the sexy tango sequence
with Ashley Judd which is the bisexual high-point of the film),
but she was to be plagued by pain that grew more intense throughout
the years of her life.
Again Hayek reminds us of this throughout the film, constantly
grimacing with the effort of movement while she goes about even
the simplest of tasks. Her walk is always stilted, her head slightly
bowed. Her emotional and physical pain are somehow easily separated
for the viewer, though the effort and talent it takes for Hayek
to display this should not be underestimated.
If Frida suffers from anything it is a tendency
towards stunt casting. Though the main parts are inhabited fully
by Hayek and Alfred Molina, the surrounding cast sometimes detracted
from the work. One wonders if it was necessary for her to tango
with Ashley Judd for a single scene when any sexy, latino woman
would do. Also, in the same sequence, Kahlo wins a drinking contest
against Molina and an overacting Antonio Banderas. In the American
scenes Rivera's wall mural is commissioned and then destroyed
by Hayek's then-boyfriend Edward Norton, normally sublimely talented
but wasted and distracting here.
The film does drag a little in the middle when Kahlo's life was
less about painting and more about selling herself as an artist,
but there isn't a single scene that I would consider superfluous
or wasted. The direction does occasionally tend towards the pedestrian
in parts and somewhat inspired in others, creating an uneven feeling
between the bookends of the film and the middle section.
I was inspired by the sections on communist politics. It seems
that the writer and director eschewed some of the physicality
and sexual adventures of Kahlo's life in order to fully explore
her political associations, which might make for a dull film for
some but is utterly fascinating if you are at all interested in
the machinations that surrounded the murder of socialist leader
Leon Trotsky. Kahlo's famous affair with Trotsky is covered in
depth and with emotion. In an interesting undercurrent Kahlo herself
receives some of the blame for Trotsky's death.
The film doesn't hesitate to choose sides and does so vehemently
in parts. At times both a celebration and a damnation of Kahlo's
choices, Frida doesn't try to deify its subject,
which is the fatal flaw of too many similar projects. In the end
the final scenes are positives ones of Kahlo's work and her courage
in the face of incredible pain, which, after all, are what we
will remember her for.
People who labelled Frida as Hayek's "vanity"
project do the film a huge disservice, by connotation suggesting
that the film could have been better served had Hayek distanced
herself a little from the part. Not so, I think. It is Hayek's
obvious passion for the film and her identification with the subject
(much like Madonna's portrayal of Eva Péron in Evita)
that helped her produce what is arguably the performance of her
career to date.
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