USA 2002 : Julie Taymor : 123mins

Salma Hayek worked her cojones off for seven years to bring the life-story of radical Mexican artist Frida Kahlo to the screen, fending off the likes of Madonna and J-Lo. And it’s not hard to see why all these divas were desperate to land the role: Kahlo, nearly crippled by a 1920s bus-crash as a teenager, had to overcame terrible physical problems to become one a bona-fide art-world superstar. Along the way, this politically committed, openly bisexual firebrand conducted a long and turbulent romance with legendary mural-painter and womaniser Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), as well as flings with an exiled Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) and superstar photographer Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd).

On paper, the innovative Taymor, previosuly responsible for the original Broadway Lion King and enjoyably bonkers Shakespeare adaptation Titus, must have seemed a perfect choice to direct. But something went wrong somewhere down the line – three sets of scriptwriters are credited, suggesting the studios responsible interfered, nervous of alienating American audience with such potentially ‘risky’ material. The result is a disappointingly standard-issue artist-biopic in the Pollock mould, relatively conventional in form, style and structure: we begin with an aged Frida looking back over episodes in her life as she’s carried, bed-bound, to her first retrospective.

As in The Dancer Upstairs, all characters converse in heavily accented English, with occasionally indecipherable results: it’s just as well Frida’s father Guillermo Kahlo (Roger Rees) is given the line “I’m a German Jew!” as we probably wouldn’t be able to tell otherwise. The eventual fate of Mr Kahlo is one of many loose ends left untied – the film is also noticeably more reticent on Frida’s relationships with women than with men, and at times the focus is so heavily on Molina’s Rivera that the title perhaps should have been Frida and Diego. or even Diego and Frida. Molina has fun with the Clintonesque muralist – at one amusing point the actor seems to be channelling the ghost of the late Sid James when he makes a guffawing crack about Frida’s “melones.”

While the energetic Hayek predictably landed her Best Actress nomination along with the film’s nods for make-up, score, costumes and song, Frida rightly failed to make the cut for script or direction. The only genuinely striking sequence (a phantasmagoric opearating-table hallucination) is handled by renegade animators the Brothers Quay, and elsewhere it’s sad to see Taymor resorting to clich (those spinning front-pages!) and generally reining herself back in a way that would surely have enraged her movie’s audacious, unbridled heroine – a woman who, after all, “put such agonised beauty on canvas.”

22nd February, 2003
(seen 1st February, Cinerama, Rotterdam)

For all the review from the Rotterdam Film Festival click here.

by Neil Young