"Frida Kahlo was one of the most original women of her times…Behind the romance, behind the glamour, behind the madness, lies the mystery of one of the most seductive and most intriguing woman of ours or any other times."
Or so the gravelly-voiced trailer man booms, telling us not so much a reason to watch Frida, but more that this is being sold as a Miramax product. Despite the vagaries of his praise, the trailer man has a point; the artist Frida Kahlo had such an eventful life that any film on her would be worth viewing, whether the Weinsteins have landed their grubby, Oscar-stained mitts on the marketing campaign or not.
Much has been made of Salma Hayek’s struggle to bring her version of the film to the screen, beating off rival versions and a general apathy towards the project due to her lack of box office clout – all of which has overshadowed the film’s on-screen strengths. Julie Taymor’s direction is superb. Unlike Ed Harris’ equally excellent Pollock (2000), she is less concerned with the putting paint to canvas side of her artists’ lives, and more intent in representing how political and personal events resonate through their art. This explains the film’s many fantasy sequences, which include a claymation Dia De Los Muertos operating room, a Dadaesque recreation of New York and a re-enactment of King Kong (1933) with Kahlo and husband, Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) filling in for Fay Wray and the gigantic ape. Often scenes morph in and out of paintings to live action, revealing how Kahlo has incorporated her world into her work. While these devices are inventive and intelligent, Taymor’s real skill lies in how well she melds the unusual with the more predictable melodramatic moments of the narrative.
Which is not to say Frida is perfect. Some of the dialogue is extremely clunky ("I had two big accidents in my life, Diego; the trolley and you…You are by far the worst") – although this is a reasonable concession considering the aim of the film is to match the broad, primary strokes of its protagonist’s paintings. The litany of star cameos (Edward Norton, Geoffrey Rush, and Antonio Banderas turn up briefly as Rockerfeller, Trotsky and David Alfaro Siqueiros respectively) may help the audience focus on key figures from history, yet their brevity of screen time means their effect on Frida’s world is given scant regard. The stand-off between Rockerfeller and Rivera over his mural was given a far better airing in Tim Robbins’ little seen Cradle Will Rock (1999), where it was little more than a sub-plot.
Hayek in the lead is surprisingly good. Her previous work has lacked depth and granted her little to do but look gorgeous. Despite the pre-production hype claiming this will be a ‘warts, moustache and all’ look at Kahlo, Hayek studiously avoids the DiCaprio bum-fluff. Just as Hayek cannot help but be aesthetically appealing, the film cannot bear to do anything but celebrate Kahlo’s life. There are some dark moments, but the film never really comes close to showing its star and central character as anything but a goddess. This is often quite embarrassing, especially since the roguish Diego comes off as far more amiable, despite his obvious flaws of serial adultery and ego.
Molina’s performance is one of those truly great supporting turns. Kahlo and Rivera’s turbulent romance is always convincing, but it is their friendship that gives this film its emotional heart. It is a pity for an apparently feminist film that Kahlo’s interaction with Trotsky’s wife (who comes across as a badly-handled caricature) and Kahlo’s sister, Cristina (whose domestic life is hinted at but never satisfactorily explored) is limited. Mia Maestro’s truncated turn as the latter shows real promise, and was one of many hidden pleasures that made this spectator wish that Frida went on for a little longer, adding the same colour to its population as it does to it eponymous hero.