Dir: Julie Taymor. USA. 2002. 121mins.
First the bad news: Julie Taymor's cinematic life of painter Frida Kahlo, which US-based Mexican actress Salma Hayek fought for most of a decade to bring to the screen, is not the masterpiece some had anticipated. The good news, at least for distributor Miramax, is that it's a decent biopic that should perform well at the box office. Certainly Kahlo's current bankability as an artist and cultural icon, combined with the eye-catching cast, the Mexican colour and music and Taymor's off-the-wall credentials, should help Miramax more than recoup the film's $14m budget, both in the US (where the film opens with a platform release on Oct 25) and overseas, where it will roll out after it opened this year's Venice film festival.
Frida Kahlo is, of course, the Mexican painter with the joined eyebrows whose confessional self-portraits, inspired by episodes in her own life, hovered a little too knowingly between surrealism and the Mexican peasant tradition. Early on, her life was branded by two fateful events. First, a bus crash she was involved in aged sixteen, from which she emerged lacerated and crippled; and second, her meeting with the great Mexican mural painter Diego Rivera, a womanising Communist who would become Kahlo's husband and (apart from the odd lapse) lifelong companion. The film's central tenet is mouthed by Kahlo/Hayek, just in case the audience fail to catch on: "I have suffered two big accidents in my life. One came when the streetcar ran over me; the other was Diego".
There is no lack of material for a racy biopic: Kahlo was a feisty and determined non-conformist, who experimented at one time or another with hard-drinking, hard-smoking, lesbianism and Leon Trotsky (the man, not his works, while he was an exile in her father's house in Mexico City). Her weirdly anatomical self-portraits and the illustrated diary she wrote in the years before her death in 1954 offer a rich seam for a filmed life, and there are any number of biographies in English and Spanish to fill in the factual gaps.
Frida is, in effect, two films. Mostly it's a smart, colourful but commercial modern biopic, in which the standard Mexican folklore cliches are glued into place by the English-language dialogue. Just occasionally, though, the film makes a visually provocative attempts to find a cinematic match for Frida Kahlo's distinctive artistic style. One minute the audience is given dreary "art history for dummies" dialogue; the next, director Taymor (Titus, the stage production of Disney's The Lion King) produces an animated tableau that enlivens one of Kahlo's self-portraits, or goes to town on a black-and-white dream sequence, inspired by Russian construcivist collages, in which Diego Rivera, newly arrived in New York, appears to Frida as King Kong. They come over as occasions when Taymor is really enjoying herself, with the result that the feature has two registers; one of wild imaginative free-association and the other of simple Hollywood competence.
That the script went through more than the usual development hell can't have helped, with even the official Miramax pressbook disagreeing on writers: in the same publication, Taymor praises the contributions by Rodrigo Garcia and says that "enormous credit must go to Edward Norton for his revisions as well".
On-screen Norton, takes an enjoyable cameo role as Nelson Rockefeller - the man who commissioned and then destroyed a New York mural by Diego Rivera because the artist had refused to paint out a portrait of Lenin which appeared in one corner.
Other cameos by Antonio Banderas (as Rivera's political sparring partner David Alfaro Siqueiros) and Geoffrey Rush (as Leon Trotsky) bind a strong cast in celebrity giftwrap. Hayek (who also produced the film) is effective as Kahlo, but lacks Oscar-winning spark; more impressive is British actor Alfred Molina: his Diego Rivera is a likeable, egotistical monster whose political principles come second only to his taste for women.
Prod co: Miramax International presents in association with Margaret Rose Perenchio; a Ventanarosa production, in association with Lions Gate Films
US dist: Miramax
Int'l sales: Miramax Int'l
Prods: Sarah Green, Salma Hayek
Co-prods: Jay Polstein, Lizz Speed, Nancy Hardin, Lindsay Flickinger, Roberto Sneider
Scr: Clancy Sigel, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava, Diane Thomas, based on the biography by Hayden Herrera
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Prod des: Felipe Fernandez del Paso
Ed: Francoise Bonnot
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
Main cast: Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush, Ashley Judd, Anonio Banderas, Edward Norton, Valeria Golino