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Surface Depth



Julie Taymor, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.3



Posted: November 9, 2002

By Laurence Station

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo had such an extraordinary life that it's truly astonishing Hollywood is just now getting around to releasing a big screen biopic nearly fifty years after her death at age 47. Julie Taymor (Titus, the Broadway adaptation of The Lion King) helms the Kahlo feature, which seems to have been a labor of love for star and co-producer Salma Hayek. Taymor's keen visual eye suits the project marvelously and Hayek clearly gives her all in recreating the life of the mercurial painter. Unfortunately, the end result is a beautiful canvas with very little revelations despite the carefully depicted details.

Which is a shame, because the real Frida Kahlo had more than enough subtext to go along with the surface pleasure and pain that comprised her life to populate a series of films. The list of agonies Kahlo suffered reads like a casebook for the limits of human endurance: Stricken with polio at age 6, which caused a permanent thinning of her right leg; involved in a bus accident at age 18, which broke her spine and shattered the already weakened right leg; a volatile marriage to muralist Diego Rivera, which -- aside from multiple infidelities on both sides -- resulted in a series of miscarriages and great emotional trauma; the eventual amputation of her right leg below the knee due to a gangrenous infection; and possible suicide as a result of depression brought on by her failing "Judas of a body."

How Kahlo copped with such adversity became her great gift to the world, as her paintings literally reflected the depth and harrowing emotions experienced throughout her life. Kahlo's work is startling in its naked examination of the deepest fears and blackest despair a person can know -- that there is a wry glimmer of hope in her work, the sense that she is laughing despite the pain, is a testament to her resolve and desire not to be pitied regardless of her myriad setbacks.

Taymor takes this wealth of material and shapes it in a wonderfully artistic manner. Bernardo Trujillo's art direction shines. The colors are bright and vibrant, the mise en scènes painterly in their framing and design, the integration of characters and artwork they inspired or explicitly appeared in cleverly rendered. From a technical, hanging-on-the-wall-of-museum point of view, Frida is an absolute triumph. What Taymor and her excellent crew fail to reveal, however, is a deeper understanding of Frida the person, her manifold manias, passions and agonies.

Despite nailing the look and feel of Mexico City during the '20s through the '50s, Frida never penetrates beneath the surface of the world it inhabits. It follows a rote, surprisingly conventional (especially given the very unconventional personalities at hand) narrative of Frida's life and various loves, moving from point A to point B in turgidly pedestrian fashion. It's as if the production team was so worried about getting a detail wrong, any creative deviation from the standard facts about Kahlo's life were strictly avoided to such a degree the film's dramatic impetus suffers markedly.

Frida's biggest problem is that Kahlo is treated more like a work of art than an actual person. In a scene depicting her bus accident, the camera lingers over her broken body like it's some posed model, complete with gold dust falling around her, utterly gorgeous, despite being impaled by a metal post. And the admittedly neat device of showing a Kahlo painting and then having it "come to life" as the models break from their respective poses is overdone to the point of being superfluously artificial.

Another major issue is that Frida -- the main subject -- is relegated to the role of background observer in far too many scenes. The great Alfred Molina gets the most compelling and nuanced role; his performance as Diego Rivera is easily the film's strongest. Geoffrey Rush's Leon Trotsky also takes crucial screen time away from Kahlo. Hayek simply isn't given enough emotionally affecting scenes to properly convey the multifaceted complexities of her subject. That several writers had a hand in the screenplay is telling in just how long the Kahlo story has been floating around Hollywood, and readily exposes the many different approaches the story could have taken. The most obvious -- straight chronology -- wins out, and the end result is less a biopic of Frida than a handsomely mounted production about radicals and communists in Mexico during the early to middle part of the last century.

Had Taymor applied the same creative verve for storytelling as she did production design, Frida might have had a fighting chance to accomplish what far too many "great artist" movies fail to do: Reveal the soul, rather than merely the surface, of their subjects. If the real Frida been around to catch this dry recounting of her life, she most likely would have had the master print burned, and then created a work of art preserving the entire experience for posterity's sake.

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