Frida

December, 2002, Drama

Directed by:Julie Taymor

Starring:Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Antonio Banderas, Valeria Golino, Ashley Judd, Mía Maestro, Edward Norton, Geoffrey Rush, and Roger Rees

You know, from the opening shot of this luscious biography of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, that director Julie Traymor intends to convey the intensity of her subject with images as arresting as those the artist put on canvas. In an initial sequence reminiscent of Welles' Touch of Evil, the camera follows Kahlo's bedridden procession out of her house and onto a flat-bed truck. Her journey frames the movie's action; her arrival won't come until the film's climax, but for two hours you'll be treated to some of the most stunning, sensuous images in any movie to come out recently. Not since Moulin Rouge have cinematography, set and costume design, lighting and musical score created such a ravishing parade of images. Would that the same extraordinary praise could be heaped on the accompanying screenplay.

Back in the era of big studio movies, this would have been described as a "star vehicle"; Selma Hayek, (who also co-produced) dominates almost every scene as the tempestuous Frida, mistress-wife to the legendary muralist Diego Rivera. Born to a Mexican mother and a German/Jewish father, Frida evidences both early talent as a painter and a penchant for bohemian lifestyles. Badly injured in a bus accident as a young student, Kahlo confronts the much older and pudgy Rivera with her work and quickly becomes his protégée/lover. His growing reputation, left-wing politics and flagrant womanizing intrigue and challenge Frida's own willfulness; against the advice and warnings of her mother and Rivera's two previous wives, Frida marries her celebrated partner, then spends a dozen or more years in his shadow, enduring the pain of numerous surgeries, violent quarrels and the serial infidelities of her wandering husband.

But Kahlo gives as good as she gets; in retaliation, she allows her sexual appetites to range from affairs with Josephine Baker (in Paris) to Leon Trotsky (in Mexico). The work she so agonizingly produces grows darker and ever more sinister as the loss of a son in childbirth and the loss of her husband (to her sister, among others) cause her to slide into alcoholism and poverty. Their reconciliation comes just before her first major exhibition, (which we see near the film's close) as the culmination of the opening scene.

It would be hard to over praise Taynor's visual sense; the camera commands the eye as it dances from one scene to the next without once intruding overtly into the action, creating enormously successful introductions to the content of Frida's work. The events of her celebrity-ridden life are as accurate as might be expected in the Hollywood version of such a creative life, but its points are delivered with dialogue that simply can't keep pace with the impact of Taynor's visual capabilities. 

Any self-respecting feminist would also object to the curiously 50ish sentiment embedded in plot's premise. Here's another talented, capable woman who just can't seem to define herself and live successfully without reference to the man in her life, despite the fact that his behavior proves him to be unworthy of her love. Dorothy Malone played that part in those over-ripe Douglas Sirk epics half a century ago; here's a curiously anachronistic return to that ethos, at odds with its brilliant presentation. The results excite but don't fulfill. Hayek and Alfred Molina (as Rivera) deliver consistently solid performances but they never become the larger than life personalities the film so earnestly intends them to be. That caveat aside, go see this movie for the sheer beauty present in every frame.  

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