So if one were to make a movie about Kahlo starring Salma Hayek, whose physique is anything — everything — but damaged, it would seem wise to hide the actress' body a bit, or to cloak it in prosthetic pain. The new Frida goes the other direction, having Hayek writhe in seductive dances shortly after she's supposed to have gone through drastic surgery, showing her falling out of a full-body cast looking like a tanned, toned centerfold with a sprinkling of plaster on her torso.
This is good news for voyeurs, but bad news for those who expected Frida to be something more than a standard-issue Hollywood biopic. When, late in the film, Kahlo says "I'm used to pain," it's supposed to be meaningful — but no attentive viewer could possibly believe it; she's been having too much fun.
If the painter's soul isn't brought to life, fans will hope at least for an intriguing cinematic connection to her work. This, director Julie Taymor delivers. A number of very clever vignettes play with the screen's dimensions, maneuvering actors into tableaux that then become two-dimensional, and vice versa. This is the kind of thing film buffs expect from Taymor, and it's not simply dazzling; it also connects famous paintings to the events and emotions that inspired them. Unfortunately, these trompe l'oeil moments are hiccups in the movie's tone, which is generally pretty literal-minded.
Taymor's previous film, Titus, also contained strange imagery, but that expressionism was matched by consistently bizarre performances from the cast; even if some of the choices seemed silly, they all clearly belonged to the same movie. In Frida, though, the action surrounding the hallucinations is presented in a disappointingly conventional style.
Style aside, the action itself is more conventional than Kahlo-ites may expect. Kahlo was known for her unorthodox romances, including her complicated marriage to muralist Diego Rivera. While we see some of her more sensational liaisons, Taymor and her screenwriting team fail to capture much that is special about the pair's marriage; within hours of marrying Rivera, Kahlo is standing in his ex-wife's kitchen, learning to fix his favorite mole, and making a soap-opera-bohemian peace with his frequent dalliances.
It has already been pointed out that we see far more of Rivera as a painter here than of Kahlo. We see him on scaffolds, in his chaotic studio, working with models; we see her with brush in hand hardly at all. This and the fact that Alfred Molina (Rivera) is a much more engaging actor than his colleague — having worked hard to build a Rivera-sized belly, Molina appreciates it enough to use the mass, transforming himself into one of the screen's great magnetic fat men — provokes the observation that the film should have been called Frida and Diego, abandoned all hope of a comprehensive biography, and honed in on the one part of Kahlo's life that seems to interest the filmmakers.
Instead, we're given the predictable rhythm of biopics: too many famous events to cram in, too little time for languid appreciation of a life's intimate moments. There are certainly instants when the film becomes poetic — a scene involving Leon Trotsky's death, in which sudden bleeding and an ink-soaked page echo each other beautifully, for example — yet the film is far too prosaic for the enigmatic woman it depicts.
"Conventional look at an unconventional life"
Dir. Julie Taymor; writ. Hayden Herrera (book), Clancy Sigal, et al; feat. Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush, Edward Norton, Ashley Judd, Mía Maestro, Roger Rees (R)