Frida, the film biography of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, is hopelessly at odds with itself and not in very fascinating ways.
At its infrequent best, the movie reflects the artist's lacerating self-portraits. We see the actors literally forming the basis of her paintings or stepping out of them; splashes of collage or puppetry bridge gaps in the action and reflect her surreal temperament. In these flurries of invention, dramatic life imitates a graphic art that has already imitated real life.
But director Julie Taymor and her producer-star, Salma Hayek, generally hew closer to the colorful extroversion of Kahlo's longtime lover and husband, muralist Diego Rivera. This stylistic mismatch is considerably more tortuous than Kahlo and Rivera's marriage. And it's not fruitful artistically.
The moviemakers portray Kahlo's lifespan in big, garish chunks of exposition and illustration from her young-adult days to her death. In segments that might as well be panels on a wall, they sketch Kahlo as an innate rebel. An ardent, independent student, she spies on Rivera as he makes art and makes love to a model.
A sexual adventuress and daddy's girl, she makes love to her boyfriend in her bedroom closet and wears trousers for a family photo shoot. Once she becomes Rivera's artistic protege, she poses as an idealized soldier of the proletariat for one of his sprawling works - an image that encapsulates the poster-art quality of this film's cultural politics.
From the start, Taymor depicts a developing artistic temperament as if she were issuing pronouncements. Frida is a declamatory, literal-minded movie, as full of hero and heroine worship as any corny old big-screen biography. (Taymor should have called it Frida: The Agony and the Ecstasy.) The overwhelming event that marks Kahlo as a savagely truthful artist is a horrific bus accident that scars her and leaves her in chronic, escalating pain for the rest of her days.
Obviously, this wreck was a life-altering influence. But we get only the most generalized depiction of how an incident can plant an aesthetic seed that flowers again and again, like a perennial. As she starts to paint whatever she can see of herself during rehabilitation (beginning with her foot), what Frida displays is that old cliche - the indomitable human spirit.
The movie becomes one testament after another to her strength, whether she's conquering her aching flesh and bones or teaching Rivera that her devotion, in the long run, means far more than his endless amorous conquests (including her sister). The movie hits on numerous volatile topics, like the pressure artistic ambition places on marital relationships. But they're rendered so blatantly that they might as well be subheads in a biographical dictionary: "Kahlo, Frida; painting, Rivera's respect for; see accompanying photos."
Taymor labors gleefully on an ever-broadening canvas. Her splashiness can be seductive. After all, her story encompasses such juicy conflicts as Stalinism vs. Trotskyism in Mexican cultural politics, and the collision of upper-crust America's taste for cutting-edge art and devotion to capitalism. The movie reaches one of its too-many climaxes when Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton) commissions Rivera to paint a mural in Rockefeller Center, then orders him to alter the face of Lenin.
But as Taymor does her art-film tour-guide thing (now we're in Paris! is that Josephine Baker or just an astounding lookalike?), the character of Kahlo gets lost - or, rather, never gets found.
Throughout the movie, Kahlo represents honesty and vitality to all progressive men - and all free-thinking women, too, most amusingly when she sleeps with one of Rivera's casual New York lovers. She inspires Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) to put aside his political writing for a clinch or two. (He thinks her paintings speak to everybody's loneliness.) This borderline-ludicrous episode, like much of the movie, is true but woefully inadequate - for most of her life, Frida was an ardent Stalinist.
I've adored Salma Hayek ever since she played the female lead in Robert Rodriguez's Desperado (1995), but here she's limited to embodying a sparkly sort of gumption.
In the best scene, Kahlo helps defuse the explosive antagonism between Rivera and his orthodox leftist rival, Siqueiros (Antonio Banderas), then does a sizzling tango with photographer Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd). Banderas and Judd are more fun than Hayek and Molina; they bring off their short scene with fiery humor and bohemian glamour.
Molina's conventionally hearty and soulful Rivera sums up the weakness of Frida. He tells Kahlo that he only paints what he can see, "on the outside." He says she paints "from here" - and points to the heart.
This movie is mushy at the core.
Starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina
Directed by Julie Taymor
Released by Miramax
Time 118 minutes
Sun Score * *