Not just a pretty face
Salma Hayek shines in the new film bio about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo
Julie Taymor’s Frida has the benefit of a very colorful subject—the life of the now legendary Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Better yet, entertainment-wise, it has the benefit of Salma Hayek in the title role, and she sparks this frisky bio-pic to such an extent that we might almost be justified in calling it Hayek’s Frida instead.
But that also tells you something about the limitations of this Taymor-Hayek creation: Hayek (who also has one of the many producer credits on the film) gives the characterization great energy and appeal, but the result is more a memorable movie character than a perceptive biographical portrait. Indeed, Frida is at its liveliest when it’s evoking the most conspicuous and attractive aspects of Kahlo’s character, but it veers toward dull routine when it tries to put specific aspects of her full story into capsule form.
The centerpiece of the film is Kahlo’s long, convoluted relationship—marriage, divorce, re-marriage, etc.—with another major Mexican artist, Diego Rivera (played here by Alfred Molina). The tiny Hayek and the hulking Molina make a rambunctiously charming couple onscreen, as the film sketches Kahlo and Rivera in terms of the passionate bond that carried them through and beyond the womanizing of the latter and the erotic experiments of the former, among other things. Hayek’s Frida is a study in fiery persistence—against betrayal, disappointment and daunting physical ailments.
Apart from Hayek and Molina, the film’s strong suits are in its snippets of period atmosphere (especially radical politics and art in Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s) and its stylized montages, some of which use animated images. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is particularly lively when it’s visually echoing the bold colors of Kahlo’s own art, and sequences that emphasize music (be it jazz or Mexican traditional) yield some of the production’s richest emotions.
Taymor and company fare less well when the story ventures into specific historical moments. Rivera’s conflicts with David Siqueiros (Antonio Banderas) and Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton) get the slick pop-history treatment, and a nightclub scene involving Kahlo and photographer-activist Tina Modotti makes a bold impression even though Ashley Judd doesn’t make a particularly convincing Modotti. Also, Kahlo’s relationship with doomed Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) comes off as a paint-by-numbers piece of stock historical romance and melodrama.
Nevertheless, Kahlo, Rivera and Hayek are more than enough to make you glad this film got made, with or without a scenario that looks to have been massaged every which way but up by its small army of credited producers and screenwriters. The Taymor-Hayek Frida is no substitute for a good biography (Hayden Herrera’s book on Kahlo is credited as the film’s source), but it is an engaging and at times very amiable movie, and some of the spirit of Kahlo and Rivera does come through.