Frida
A Film directed by Julie Taymor
written by Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas,
from the biography by Hayden Herrera


The new film from director Julie Taymor, who is best known for her work directing the special-effects laden Broadway version of the Disney spectacular The Lion King, is a biography of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Like nearly all film biographies, it suffers under the constraint of trying to compress at entire life (and in this case a particularly tempestuous and eventful life) into something like two hours. Unlike most film biographies, it does manage to communicate a strong sense of the artist's life and times.

This is a pet-project for Mexican-born actress Salma Hayek, who stars as Kahlo. She is also one of the film's co-producers, which means she put her energy, her own money, and her influence on the line to get the film made. She fought off challenges from competing projects - including one with rock-diva Madonna attached - and endured the rigors of independent, low-budget film-making in order to make the film she wanted.

This passion is all over the film. Hayek gives a performance that is full of intensity and intelligence without ever falling into the over-dramatization that would have been so easy here. Certainly Kahlo's paintings, that picture her as everything from an angel to an animal to an anatomical specimen to a woman ascending through the skies on a burning bed, are dramatic in the extreme. And Kahlo's story needs no embellishment to make it compelling. In fact, the danger here is that the "truth that is stranger than fiction" will make the whole thing seem overblown, ego-inflated, fantastic - the same criticisms that have been leveled against Kahlo's paintings.

Her life was characterized by unusual living situations. She and her husband, the painter Diego Rivera, shared a house with his ex-wife at one point; at another she and Rivera lived in two adjacent houses joined by an open air bridge from roof to roof. Her social and political views were quite radical. She was a leftist who hosted Leon Trotsky in his exile (and had an affair with him), and she was reputed to condone Rivera's affairs and to have had liaisons of her own, including several with women.

But the film is careful not to sensationalize the details - although not shrinking from them either - but rather to present Kahlo's idiosyncrasies matter-of-factly, on her own terms and from her own point of view. The result is a story that explores a life lived on the edge - and occasionally beyond - that celebrates creativity in the face of pain and disappointment, and imagination as a powerful weapon against the forces that seek to make human life "short, brutal and dull."

The job of trying to bring Kahlo's story to the screen without trivializing or bowdlerizing it or turning it into melodrama must have been a daunting one. Working from an original biography Frida: a Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera, four credited writers, Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas combined their talents to produce the finished screenplay - not to mention uncredited re-writes and polishes by anonymous "script-doctors," including, rumor has it, Hayek's boy-friend, actor Edward Norton, who also appears in a cameo role in the film.

Trying to combine the visions and voices of such a number of writers often results in unevenness, but here the blending is relatively unobtrusive. There are dramatic shifts of tempo and voice, but the way they fit into the film works well with the shifts in consciousness Kahlo undergoes. Her voice as a playful, sensual, rebellious teenager, for instance, is replaced by that of the determined, introspective, stoic invalid she becomes after a near-fatal trolley accident.

That voice, in turn is supplanted by the assertive voice of the ambitious and determined neophyte artist she becomes next, and then by the confidant, daring voice of the radical bohemian she evolves into under the patronage of Rivera. But her story never becomes a morality (or immorality) tale.

The film makers have taken the approach of presenting the "larger-than-life" story of an obviously powerful and charismatic personality in a way that uses the personal, day-to-day aspirations, disappointments and satisfactions of that life to form a layer that humanizes the events and makes them accessible, without diminishing the imaginative, passionate spontaneity that makes the character interesting in the first place.

Taymor has a powerful and accomplished cast with whom to work. First among them is Hayek, who brings a daring and recklessness to her performance that never spills over into bravado. She is playing Frida Kahlo, and it is Kahlo we see on the screen. But the intensity of Hayek's dedication to this story is evident in the risks she takes and the vibrant life with which she imbues the character.

Even in scenes where Kahlo is immobilized by injury or illness, there is an intensity, a heightened degree of attention and connection to life, an active, creative imagination, that Hayek makes palpable. In the final scene, a relatively low-key evocation of her last illness, Hayek projects an unquenchable incandescence that reference to a Kahlo self-portrait, in a burning bed, ascending into the clouds, underscores in visual counterpoint.

Likewise, Alfred Molina, a fine actor who has been underused in film, is expansive, bombastic, charming, self-deceiving, loving and selfish without turning Rivera's oversized personality into a caricature. His appetites, his talent, his opportunism, his commitment all exist in one being whom Molina makes humanly contradictory and complex.

Since the story is about Kahlo, Rivera appears as a major, yet secondary, character. Molina manages to suggest his profound importance to Kahlo's artistic and emotional life without ever making him the center of the film. With a character as broad and powerful as Rivera, this combination of vigorous evocation and artistic restraint is no mean feat, and Molina handles it with apparently effortless aplomb.

Secondary characters are likewise sharply drawn and effectively played. Geoffrey Rush is affecting as a tired, dispirited but still game Leon Trotsky. Roger Rees, as Frida's Hungarian-Jewish father Guillermo Kahlo, provides some insight into the support and respect - as well as the "outsider" identity - that formed one basis of his daughter's self-possession.

Valeria Golino is fine as Rivera's ex-wife Lupe, with an appearance that is strong enough to act as an effective foil for Hayek, creating a contrast that illuminates both strengths and weaknesses in Kahlo's character (and Rivera's), without ever threatening to steal the scenes they share. Likewise Mia Maestro, as Frida's sister Christina creates a persona that is strong enough to be believable, without intruding on the fact that the story we are watching is Frida's.

There are also some fine cameo appearances. Ashley Judd is almost unrecognizable as she sinks into the character of radical bohemian Tina Modotti. Antonio Banderas is leftist firebrand David Alfaro Siqueiros. Both - and especially Judd - cast aside their movie-star cachet to provide forceful portrayals that show us something important about the major characters in just a few minutes of screen-time.

The one off-key note, sad to say, is the usually excellent Edward Norton's John D. Rockefeller, jr. Norton seems too youthful and intelligent to embody the dilemma Rockefeller found himself in, caught between the dictates of his tyrannical father and his pretensions of freedom, integrity and bohemian radicalism.

But the script doesn't have time to go into the politics in any detail, and sees them primarily as background. It is, for instance, less important to know what Kahlo's exact understanding of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and her attitude toward it was, than it is to know that she was a woman who was politically active, outspoken and deeply concerned, who put her body, her livelihood and her reputation on the line for the things in which she believed.

This is, of course, where this film and any movie-biography can be faulted. There is a wealth of important, meaningful, moving detail that has to be left out. In some cases, that leads to two-dimensional, sterile homage. But in this case, the Frida that emerges is a vital, imaginative woman of complexity, intelligence and great interest.

Taymor and her cast and crew accomplish this by going beyond the facts and events of Kahlo's life, into the realm she depicts in her many autobiographical paintings. By playing with the visual bleed between events as they occurred and as Kahlo depicted them, a clear sense of the symbolic intensity of her vision is achieved. By stepping outside the constraints of traditional narrative, Taymor offers us another way of understanding and experiencing the events of Kahlo's story that begins to suggest the contours of the inner life she so effectively revealed in her painting.

Taymor, whose other film credit is the controversial and visually arresting film version of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (shortened to Titus for the film version), and who was a stage production designer known for her use of bold color and powerful imagery, has contributed her feel for the surreal in a number of animated and live-action dream sequences. Her attempts to convey something of the "artist's eye" version of events are mostly strikingly effective, although some are more successful than others.

The production values, for a film of relatively modest financial scope, are surprisingly high. Taymor shows her background in production design again, in the richness of composition and visual dynamics she achieves with relatively simple materials and techniques. The use of an Hispanic Cinematographer (Rodrigo Prieto) and Production Designer (Felipe Fernandez del Paso), who presumably share the cultural visual sensibility in which Kahlo was immersed, was a wise choice.

The camera-work is imaginative without being overly gimmicky. Although there are some trick-shots - used intentionally for their shock value in blurring the line between objective reality and inner vision - they are appropriate and effective rather than self-consciously arty. The use of color values and the design of the sets manages to insinuate many of the unconscious influences on Kahlo's style.

The original music, by Taymor's husband Elliot Goldenthal, blends nicely with period music and songs in the Mexican folk-vernacular to create an evocative and supportive background to the action.

All in all, in about two hours, Taymor and company manage to sketch a portrait of a complex, creative, vigorous woman. That they don't tell the whole story goes without saying. That they communicate some of the vitality, the sensuality, the humor and the struggle of an interesting and original human being is enough. They introduce us to a Frida Khalo with whom it is fascinating and intriguing to spend a couple of hours. If you want more, you can always read the book.

That's my take on it. What's yours?