TORONTO 2002 REVIEW: By the Numbers, Surprisingly; Taymor's "Frida" Falls to Convention
by Peter Brunette
(indieWIRE: 09.11.02) -- Assessing the quality of Julie Taymor's new film "Frida," which recounts the life of famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, depends upon the context in which it's placed. As a Hollywood biopic, it pretty much paints by the numbers and fills in all the requisite blanks, and is pleasantly watchable, even fun, from beginning to end. However, as a film by the arch visual stylist Taymor (who gave us the sublimely re-imagined "Titus" and the superb Broadway production of "The Lion King"), it's deeply disappointing.
Frida Kahlo, who, throughout her life, painted in the shadow of her more famous husband, the Communist muralist Diego Rivera, has finally come into her own in the last decade or two, thanks to the welcome efforts of feminist intellectuals to find more female heroes. And everything that most of us already vaguely know is here in the film: her middle-class family, with her beloved German-Jewish father at its head; the remarkable eyebrows that famously made one straight line across her face (and, in only one scene, thank God, the equally famous moustache as she ages); her youthful high spirits in art school; her bisexuality; and the tragic tram accident that nearly killed her and that left her in fragile health the rest of her life. There's also the tempestuous relationship with the openly womanizing Rivera (played excellently here by Alfred Molina, who was by far the best thing about "Chocolat"); the heady political and philosophical debates (heavyweight names like Hegel and Schopenhauer are bandied about) and sexual experimentation of the more radical elements of the time; the affair with Leon Trotsky, hiding in Mexico from Stalin's henchman; and, perhaps most interestingly, the famed trip to New York in the 1930s, when Rivera accepted a commission from Nelson Rockefeller to paint a mural that turned out a just bit too revolutionary for the liberal capitalist.
What's not here, however, is any sense of the art, the ideas, or the mental life of Frida Kahlo. Astonishingly in a film made by such a powerful woman artist like Taymor, Kahlo is seen almost completely in terms of her relationship with first Rivera and then with Trotsky. Granted, these are the terms in which her life has always been cast, but one expected more from a film made in 2002 about such a creative woman. Even worse, while no expense is spared to create the historical and political setting of her life (and, to be fair, here the film excels), there is virtually nothing in the film about her striking work, about its meaning, its themes, or its aesthetic. We see plenty of examples of it, especially in some wonderful Taymor-trademark animated sequences, but its complexity and significance is never explored. Early in the film, Rivera says, while in bed with Frida, that "I paint what I see around me, but you paint with your heart," and that's all we ever learn about Kahlo's often deeply troubling work.
The script is almost painfully flat. It's sprinkled with hoary scriptwriting conventions from beginning to end, as when young people are suddenly jerked out of the frame (this is meant to convey hilarious high jinx), or two of Diego's wives simultaneously answer to "Mrs. Rivera," or when Frida anachronistically tells her battered sister at one point that "I should have been there for you." Worst of all, when the renowned Trotsky appears, Frida's drama stops virtually dead, only to be revived after he's assassinated.
And with the noted exception of Alfred Molina, the performances are barely adequate. In the case of Salma Hayek, the spunky Latina bombshell just seems out of her depth. Her gestures and emotional outbursts are all straight, white-bread Hollywood, and are not artistically enhanced by the plethora of conventional reaction shots that Taymor has decided to include. During quiet moments, her face goes inert rather than suggesting something more nuanced happening under the surface. Some here at the festival have lauded her performance, but I suspect this is a function of relief more than anything else. Performances by Geoffrey Rush as Leon Trotsky and Edward Norton (who also helped write the script) as Nelson Rockefeller are downright silly and unconvincing, yet it's not their fault, but rather a structural problem with the film. It's almost always an error to use a well-known actor to play a famous personage with only a brief role in a story, since it's quite impossible, given the limited time available, to ever believe that it's Trotsky and Rockefeller, and not Geoffrey Rush and Edward Norton, up there on the screen.
By far the best thing about the movie comes when Miramax lets Julie Taymor be Julie Taymor. She makes excellent use of a bunch of visual narrative tricks, such as time-lapse photography to suggest chronological progression, and she's particularly good at sequences in which live people mutate into Kahlo's paintings (or vice-versa), a technique which is both entertaining and revealing about the relation of Kahlo's life to her art. The wonderful animated sequences that delight, narrate, and make a point at the same time (especially the montage of the visit to New York, in which Rivera becomes King Kong hanging off the Empire State Building, with Kahlo in his hairy grasp) end up nearly rescuing "Frida." Unfortunately, however, they serve ultimately only to underline the utter (if serviceable) conventionality of the rest of the movie.