Julie Taymor and Salma Hayek both ‘get’ Frida Kahlo. That much is immediately obvious. When making a biopic of one of the most vibrant and fearless artists of the 20th century you’re going to need a team who understand how to bring the same originality and sincerity to the film as Kahlo did to her painting. These two women were more than capable of that task and their collaboration is nothing short of magical.
It tells the story of Frida Kahlos life from 1922 when she was a teenager living with her family on the outskirts of Mexico City to her death in 1954. It takes in the accident that left her with lifelong injuries when she was just 18 years old, the evolution of her work, her turbulent relationship with the artist Diego Rivera and her involvement with the communist party. This is not the life of an ordinary person, this is the story of an incredible woman. It is a study of love, sexuality, trust and above all, true fearless expression.
As well as co-producing the film, Salma Hayek is astounding in the role of Kahlo. It’s like a fire has been lit inside her, I’ve never seen her do anything like this (admittedly my knowledge of her filmography is pretty basic and I’ve only ever seen her play the sassy sexpot role). I imagine it to be a pretty intimidating gig, embodying such an iconic and complex figure. But she absolutely nails it. And it’s not just the look (which is pretty near perfect while we’re on the subject) it’s her physicality. She manages to channel a jubilant, mischievous, awkward teenage Frida before transforming into the fiery, determined woman of her later years. It is one of the most complex portrayals of a character I’ve ever come across. We watch Frida falter and break down, make defiant stands, question her own judgment, form strong friendships, fall in love, grapple with her disabilities and try to make sense of herself. It is a truly remarkable performance
She also portrays Frida as an extremely sensual woman. The scene where she dances a tango with Ashley Judds Tina Modotti is one of the most erotic scenes I’ve ever seen between two women. It’s subtly exciting in a way that women can really be with each other. I suspect that if a man had directed that scene it would have been more overt and charged, more aggressive. Instead it’s very playful, they are delighting in one another.
Julie Taymor is a powerhouse of artistic endeavor. She has won countless awards for theatre and opera direction as well as for set and costume design, including two Tony awards for the Lion King on Broadway. She was a great choice to direct a film about such a bold artist because she had the vision with which to make it so visually exciting. She has chosen to bring a taste of the surrealism in Fridas work into the fabric of the film. Our journey into Fridas head during her hospitalization following the accident becomes a kind of hallucination of day of the dead skeleton doctors. Shot in shuddering stop motion animation, it is just as jarring and confusing as the experience must have been. The culture shock of Fridas trip to America with Rivera is brought to life in chaotic collaging of American pop culture. Numerous times paintings come to life and life slows to become painting, mirroring the inextricable link between Fridas life and work. The production and costume design are good enough reasons alone to watch this film.
The characters are all so vividly portrayed. Each one is given the opportunity to really come to life. Fridas father, sister and Riveras ex wife Lupe are particularly fascinating. Also, it would have been easy to portray Rivera as a womanizing cad who couldn’t keep it in his pants, but that would have forced Frida into a victim role. Instead Taymor allows us a more complex relationship of Rivera. He is disarming, suave, intelligent and passionate. He and Frida have a great mutual respect for each other as individuals and artists but they also share a sense of fun and a lust for life. So it is obvious why she falls for him and marries him despite his assurances that he cannot be faithful. When he disappoints her, we feel her frustration in herself as well as in him. We continually feel her lingering hope that he will change as well as the deep-seated knowledge that he never will.
It’s a wonderful, vibrant film that I could watch over and over again and never get bored. It’s the kind of film that restores all your strength. If you’re ever in doubt or life just seems a bit hard, watch this film and ask yourself ‘what would Frida do?’
But frustratingly, it doesn’t pass the bechdel test…..