Julie Taymor’s Oscar-winning Frida is visually stunning but depicts the celebrated Mexican artist as a political invalid
2002, Handprint/Lions Gate/Miramax/Ventanarosa
Reviewed by Eugene Carey
LATAMROB rating: ****
JULIE TAYMOR’S Oscar-winning Frida is a powerful and beautifully filmed biography that all but completes this Mexican artist’s cultural transformation from misunderstood provincial invalid into latter-day global feminist icon.
It also demonstrates Frida Kahlo’s vibrant, extroverted character and tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera are simply too enticing for the big commercial screen to ignore, especially when mixed with a little coarse grit from south of the border and stirred up with some spicy lesbian chic by the delectable Salma Hayek.
But there is much irony in the fact that Frida’s first, hesitant steps into the world of Hollywood respectability and hence her conversion from crippled but courageous artist into symbol of the strong, individualistic woman whom US feminists find so easy to revere, began more than 16 years before with Paul Leduc’s Frida, naturaleza viva (1986). Leduc’s film could also so easily have been an Academy Award winner for best foreign-language film – but was not entered because of a bureaucratic mix-up that had prevented the film being screened to award representatives who had visited Mexico to see it.
Leduc’s visually striking film coincided with a major exhibition of Kahlo’s work at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and followed the publication of Hayden Herrera’s influential biography of Kahlo around which Taymor’s movie would later be based. Producer Nancy Hardin optioned the rights to Herrera’s work when it was originally published in 1983 but it was not until interest in Kahlo’s art began to soar in the early 1990s that a US movie inched towards becoming a viable prospect.
The differences between Leduc’s pioneering interpretation of Kahlo’s life and Taymor’s speak loudly about the changing priorities of filmmakers straddling two sides of the Cold War, Mexican political history and the US border. Leduc situates Kahlo firmly in the world of real and dangerous political choices that followed the Mexican and Russian revolutions; Taymor constructs a masterpiece of sanitisation in which politics is a bourgeois diversion and a cipher for sexual attraction. Not only does Taymor avoid exploring Frida’s politics in anything like the detail necessary to paint an accurate picture of what drove this passionate woman, but she conspires to ensure that the only real proximity Frida has to revolutionary ideas is through Rivera and her love interest, Leon Trotsky.
As such, Taymor’s Frida misses an important opportunity to explore the issue that should be central to any feminist interpretation – the politics of women in Mexico – and almost starts from the bald and wildly inaccurate assumption that Kahlo enjoyed the same rights to act, speak – and indeed, to be heard – as Rivera.
Although we see Kahlo singing a few ribald political ballads when drunk with tequila, and Rivera and Siqueiros (Alfred Molina and Antonio Banderas) behaving badly as spoiled Mexican males – shooting pistols at gramophone players and womanising unashamedly – we get few if any meaningful insights into the detail or direction of Kahlo’s own ideas.
This is a significant omission, not least because it was the politics of Frida Kahlo and how these responded to the changing priorities of the Mexican revolutionary state that help to make her so interesting.
Leduc’s Frida starring Ofelia Medina offered, among other things, an exploration of this politics and begins at the end with a striking scene in which Rivera visits the palace of Bellas Artes in Mexico City to pay his respects at the coffin of his wife which is emblematically draped with the red communist flag – a tribute to her impression upon her comrades, if nothing else – setting the subsequent tone of the film.
Kahlo was an active communist and the violence and lore bequeathed by the Mexican Revolution, which began when she was three, left marks upon her as indelible as her injuries. Despite her affair with Trotsky that forms a vignette in this film, Kahlo was anything but a Trotskyist and after his death denounced her former lover and praised his killer, Stalin. She later leaned towards Mao and saw China as a socialist archetype.
The little dialogue in Leduc’s movie is devoted to politics, and Trotsky’s appearance is mainly through French and Russian, not the polished Spanish implied by Geoffrey Rush’s amorous performance. Kahlo’s commitment to Mexicanidad and indigenous themes, the two most powerful ideologies of her life, are also all but invisible in Taymor’s movie and the rivalry and enmity that existed between Rivera and the volcanic Siqueiros is ignored.
Taymor’s film is accomplished and visually stunning, attempting to recreate the colour contrast and imagery of Kahlo’s own paintings with care, and Hayek delivers the performance of her life. But the director has either missed or ignored opportunities for exploring the byzantine leftwing politics of the era in place of salacious infidelities and simplistic messages about female pain and suffering.
Eugene Carey is a journalist