Directed by Julie Taymor. USA/Canada. 2002.

Reviewed by Nigel Watson and Howard Schumann

Original Music Composed by Elliot Goldenthal - CD Review

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Many reviewers have praised Frida but others, like Peter Travers in Rolling Stone, complain that it ‘fights a losing battle with biopic conventions‘. In response to his short review emailers have said that this is ‘the best movie I’ve ever seen in theater’ and that it’s ‘an amazing film’.

Salma Hayek as Frida. All Rights Reserved.This intensity of reaction is probably due to the subject of the film. It’s based on a popular 1980s biography by Hayden Herrera of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Her vivid paintings of blood, death, birth and pain were executed using Mexican folk imagery and fine art sensibilities. They are as shocking as her life. She had a horrific trolley bus accident that left her in physical and mental pain for the rest of her life. The film shows her boyfriend deserting her for Europe shortly after the accident. Painting helps her recovery and when she is back on her feet again she seeks the advice of philandering painter Diego Rivera.

Salma Hayek as Frida and Alfred Molina as Diego are the central focus of the film but they are shown in a far more warm and glamorous manner than anything like the reality (not something new for film biopics I admit). After winning over Frida and even marrying her Diego quickly returns to his philandering activities but the breaking point comes when she finds him in bed with her sister! After that scene we see her taking the liberty to have her own affairs with men and women, including no less a person than Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) when he takes refuge from Stalin. This time it’s Diego turn to be shocked. Nonetheless the film adheres to the idea that Frida and Diego are emotionally attached to each other whatever the circumstances.

The director, Julie Taymor, admits that she could not include all of Frida’s lovers because it would have been hard to persuade the audience that she was so in love with Diego. It is here that we get problems with the film, it had to tidy-up a very untidy life to conform to biopic conventions. This is highlighted by the fact that no less than five writers contributed to the script.

The film is vivid with colour and action. The dance sequence between Frida and Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd) effectively puts across Frida’s lesbian urges. But at first the film looks too bright and happy then it quickly and surprisingly twists when the trolley accident blights and re-creates Frida’s life. This immersion into the world of pain and the grotesque is excellently portrayed by an animation sequence by the Brothers Quay. Strange figures are shown working on her broken body. Later when she visits New York we get a strange animated montage of her in what she calls ‘Gringolandia’, and she dreams of Diego as King Kong. These touches seem more true to the spirit of Frida.

My overall impression of the film is that it’s just another glossy Hollywood view of a struggling artist.

Nigel Watson

"I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best" - Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo may have been alone but her passionate self-portraits allow us to connect with and experience her anguish and perhaps make it easier for us to endure our own pain. Frida, a film by Julie Taymore based on the 1983 biography by Hayden Herrera stars Selma Hayek as the Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, who suffered through a lifetime of physical pain and a tempestuous marriage to leave the world a legacy of great art. Frida is a gorgeous looking film that intersperses its conventional narrative with surreal and imaginative touches, yet is reluctant to give us more than a conventional film version of a Greatest Hits album, compressing events of 47 years into a two-hour biopic that is mostly surface veneer. Hayek spent eight years in developing this movie and it is clearly a labour of love. Ms. Hayek looks like Frida in her colourful Mexican dresses with heavy necklaces and braids wrapped around her head but the psychology of her art and the political issues that she cared about are presented only in a very superficial manner.

Frida first met the muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City where he was painting a mural in the school auditorium. In 1925 when she was only 18, she broke her spine, collarbone, ribs, pelvis and legs in a trolley car accident and had to lie flat, encased in a plaster cast and enclosed in a boxlike structure for many months. It was at this time that she began to express her agony in art. Several years later, she met Diego again and, after she asked him for an honest opinion about her paintings, the two fell in love and were married. They travelled together to New York, Detroit, and San Francisco but their life was filled with constant turmoil. They divorced, then reconciled at the time Diego was seeking asylum for the Russian leader Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) with whom Frida also had an affair. Frida was hospitalised for nine months in 1950 and had her right leg amputated in 1953 as a result of gangrene. Drugs and alcohol and an embrace of Stalinism marked her final years. Her final entry in her diary read, "I hope the leaving is joyful and I hope never to return". 

I am grateful for any insight into the life of this unique artist and if it does nothing other than stimulate further investigation, the film will have served a useful purpose. Yet its preoccupation with her love affairs and shouting matches takes away from a deeper understanding of her art and who she was as a person. Frida Kahlo took traditional Mexican folk art and transformed it into a postmodern tableau that mirrors the emotional torment of her life. Some of her paintings are filled with shocking and disturbing images but in the end, we remember her mainly for the enormous vitality of her spirit. Diego Rivera observed, “It is not tragedy that rules Frida’s work.... The darkness of her pain is just a velvet background for the marvellous light of her physical strength, her delicate sensibility, her bright intelligence, and her invincible strength as she struggles to live and show her fellow humans how to resist hostile forces and come out triumphant." This triumph seems to be missing from the film and the result is an experience that is strangely lifeless. "It meant nothing," Rivera pleads when confronted by Frida about his extra-marital affairs. "It had all the emotion of a handshake." That could also describe the film.

Howard Schumann

Music From The Motion Picture
Original Music Composed by Elliot Goldenthal

Frida. All Rights Reserved.Goldenthal uses Mexican folkloric harmonies and simple melodies, along with traditional and regional Mexican songs to bring the spirit of Frida alive on the screen. He even chooses songs that the real Frida and Diego enjoyed listening to in real life. Salma Hayek in a bar room sequence sings one of Diego's favourites; La Bruja. Even more poignantly the Costa Rican-born legend, Chavela Vargas, who was one of Frida's lovers in reality, sings La Llorona. The music is at times loud and lively, and at other times it is brooding and sombre. 

Nigel Watson
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