It's no surprise that the role of Mexican surrealist Frida Kahlo has been pursued by every female actor in Hollywood capable of a Mexican accent. I mean, how many disabled, bisexual Communist women artists are there who can rightly claim space in the big room of 20th-century art history? Let's just be glad that Salma Hayek was the one who got it made. Madonna was buzzing around this project for years, and I can only sigh with relief that that idea never panned out, though we'll miss the music videos that would've come with the movie.
Aside from actually being Mexican, Hayek is the right body type, though you have to reimagine Kahlo (who was uniquely striking) as an utterly fabulous babe to accept Hayek in the role.
The unusual thing about this new biopic, directed with Julie Taymor's wild visual inventiveness, is that it manages to honour the artist without dealing with the art.
Not that we need another entry in the tortured artist film festival (the one that starts with the Van Gogh triple bill of Lust For Life, Vincent And Theo and Van Gogh), but this movie completely severs artist from art.
Without the art, Kahlo is basically the wife of muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) and later, briefly, the mistress of Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), of no interest except as historical gossip -- the Mexican Alma Mahler.
Taymor does use Kahlo's art as a visual key. The unmistakable palette of dense electric blues and Aztec reds is present from the opening shot of the courtyard of Kahlo's house, and Taymor frequently integrates Kahlo's paintings into her compositions. I particularly liked the shot where the famous wedding portrait of Kahlo and Rivera morphs into life. But if there's a connection between Kahlo's life and art, it's not onscreen.
Taymor is best known as the director of the Broadway stage production of The Lion King and of the weirdest Shakespeare adaptation of our time, Titus, which has moments of transcendentally perverse beauty amidst the horrors of the bloodiest of revenge tragedies.
With four credited writers, an unknown number of uncredited writers and an apparent rewrite by Hayek's sig.other, Edward Norton (who has a cameo as Nelson Rockefeller), it's remarkable that the script is coherent. It begins the day Kahlo meets Rivera, moves on to the bus crash that crippled her, her inspirational recovery (the one time Taymor actually descends to a visual cliché in the entire film) and her tempestuous relationship with Rivera, his second wife, Lupe (Valeria Golino), the arguments, the adultery, the garish soap opera of life.
It's got considerable dazzle, and is enjoyable throughout. The New York fantasia is terrific, depicting Rivera as King Kong climbing the Empire State Building with Kahlo in his grip -- not much of an exaggeration, since Molina towers over Hayek. But, then, so does everyone else, Hayek being tiny. (I rode in an elevator with her at the festival, and I've seen all 5 feet of her.)
The problem is, it's hard to sort through the film (I've seen it twice now) and figure out what it's all supposed to mean, aside from "Wasn't Frida Kahlo great? Overcoming obstacles and becoming a great artist and everything? Wow!"
That's OK as far as it goes, but without linking the art to the life, it doesn't go far.
Frida is worth seeing, though, for the cameos alone: Ashley Judd! Antonio Banderas!