Of all forms of entertainment, film is quite possibly the most flawed. There are many things that can make a movie successful, all depending on oneís definition of success. Money for the producers, critical acclaim for the directors, but in the end a flawed film is just a flawed film. No amount of great acting can save a lacking script. No amount of directorial flourish can rescue a cinematic sinking ship.
Of all genres of movie, the biopic is certainly the most given to flaws. Trying to cram a personís life into the accepted time frame of one-and-a-half to two hours usually makes for substandard fare. Time and again it has been tried, and time and again this reviewer has come to the conclusion that there should never be another biopic made again. One can occasionally site examples of good biopics (Amadeus, Gandhi) but not as easily as bad ones (Man on the Moon, Nixon, Sid and Nancy.)
And now comes Julie Taymorís Frida, a movie that is neither Amadeus nor Nixon- but perhaps somewhere in between. According to buzz, this is a film that has been trying to be made for some time, mostly notably by Madonna (who one can assume would have done to Frida Kahloís story what she did to Evitaís). But it took Salma Hayek to get the picture off the ground. Her commitment to the project is evident in her performance as Kahlo, one that is full of fire and even a few subtle moments. Again, as admirably as she plays the role it does not entirely save the movie from its shortcomings.
Never having been in a position to know Frida Kahlo, I have only books to give me an impression of who she was- books and this film. According to the books, the movie glossed over large parts of her life. Again, this is the inherent problem with biopics. How exactly does one tell a personís story in such a short amount of time? What facts get cut? What stays and why? Regardless of how well any director does it is never going to be enough, not in just ninety minutes. That said, one should enter the theatre knowing that they are about to witness a truncated telling of a life story. Thus, we have an already flawed picture about to unfold. Strike one. The next thing we must look at is the acting and direction; how well do the artists do with the script they are handed? Letís start with Salma.
Hayek is convincing as Kahlo, or I should say as convincing as anyone could be. She looks the part, even down to the unibrow (although she never quite gets that moustache Kahlo had,) but dressing up is only half the battle. She manages to convince the viewer that she is the tortured artist through a fine performance lacking in no pain, passion or confrontational stride. She puts herself on the same level as the machismo laden men of her area, even proving she can out-drink them and dance with an out of place Ashley Judd (although the cable car accident that left her with a permanent limp makes it difficult to believe she could dance with such ease.) She may be nominated for some award, and good for her. If anything, this is the role that, while already putting her on numerous magazine covers and talk shows, might just get her a few meatier jobs where she can flex her acting skills rather than just her breasts.
As good as Hayek is, Alfred Molina is just as good, perhaps better as the fat, womanizing, self-centered muralist, Diego Rivera. It is difficult to like him in comparison to Frida, even as it shows her dabbling in affairs with the same regularity as Diego. I suppose the justification is that he started it, but when she sleeps with Trotsky (played with oddball accent by Geoffrey Rush) Diegoís reaction is to tell her that she broke his heart. The intended reaction can be nothing other than to want to punch the bloated hypocrite. For those seeking accuracy, Molina is almost as fat as the real life Rivera but does not have the same grotesque bug eyes. He seems charismatic, as the real life Diego was reported to be, and also as egotistical. Molina makes the viewer ask the same question that many of non-Mexicans and philistines have asked for years: what the hell did she see in him? The answer is evident, she was someone attracted to genius more than looks. And it was his genius that allowed her to find her own, which, according to some critics, was superior. He was her mentor as well as- perhaps more than- her husband. They had a complex relationship, one the film only sort of captures. This is the crux of the film, the real story. A better film might have been focused solely on the two of them and been called Diego and Frida.
The great thing about the actors is that they manage to play fiery characters with a little bit of subtlety. Unfortunately the director does not do likewise. The biggest trouble with Frida is that Taymor tries too hard to capture Fridaís world. While she is able to do so by shooting on location, she slips in a lot of artsy-craftsy moments where the artist sees herself as her paintings, or the laughable King Kong and animation sequences. These are the moments that sink the film, that reduce it to a parody. It basically says that Hayek and Molina are dull to watch on their own and need some sort of film trickery to make them interesting.
Otherwise, it is a beautiful looking film. Taymor proves that she can shot a good scene when she wants to. If only she would have cut back on the film school gimmicks and allowed the players to carry the movie to its right place. One gets the idea that this might have been a great film had another director been behind the camera, or maybe if the producers forced Taymor to ease up on the experimentation. Nevertheless, I couldnít help but admire a lot about this movie. It compels rather than dulls, it makes the viewer want to know more. Unfortunately the movie does not present much more than the main facts of Fridaís life and offers little insight into who she was. We see the events that supposedly shaped her but only little of who she really was other than a caricature. But that is always the trouble with these biopics: all we are allowed are caricatures. The filmmakers are too concerned with the viewer recognizing who is who (ďoh look, thatís supposed to be Trotsky!Ē ďHey, isnít that Josephine Baker?Ē) and so all we have are paper thin characters.
The bottom line is that Frida tries hard and occasionally hits the mark. The major criticism I have heard from many is that it is in English, a language Kahlo never spoke, and that she herself would have been appalled at seeing herself played by someone speaking the lingo of the gringo. This may be true, but Frida is a movie made for white Americans more than Mexicans. It is directed by an American and produced by Hollywood. Sadly its intention is to sell tickets to American audiences who seem to dislike subtitles. I am sure that the vast majority of people plunking down eight bucks to see this film have little knowledge as to who Kahlo was. As a result, we have critical acclaim. Anyone who knows anything about Kahlo is sure to dislike the film. The same can be said about any picture that attempts to tell the tale of a much revered figure. My advice to them would be to skip this movie. Itíll only piss you off. My advice to the Frida Kahlo neophytes is to start here and read more books. And look at her art, for that is really better than any movie could be.
Oh, and one more thing, no one seemed to complain that Amadeus was in English.