It is tempting to say that the lack of narrative structure in “Frida,” Julie Taymor’s biographical film about the surrealist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, is an intentional emulation of the stream-of-consciousness writing style of the surrealist movement. It is probably more accurate to say that it suffers from a malady common to biopics: trying to depict the entirety of an exceptional life in two hours.
The film begins with a long sequence of a four-post wooden bed being carried out of a Mexican villa, past vibrant orange sculptures and green cacti, and into a truck waiting in the street. As the camera pans out, we see that Kahlo (Salma Hayek) lies in the bed, dressed in a white nightgown. “Careful, this corpse isn’t dead yet,” she says. Kahlo is very clever, and her biographers rest on her laurels.
The film covers most of Kahlo’s life, from her youth as an irrepressibly passionate schoolgirl, past the bus accident that turns her into an irrepressibly passionate cripple, into her irrepressibly passionate years as an artist, and then back to her dying days, when, still passionate, she cannot be repressed.
Hayek’s performance is consistently good (as is Alfred Molina’s, who co-stars as Kahlo’s husband and fellow painter Diego Rivera), but you begin to feel sorry for her for having to repeat the same expressions of determination and despair, elation and artistic inspiration. It is as though the filmmakers are so enchanted with themselves for making a film about Frida Kahlo that they forget to bring something new to the way her life is portrayed. Taymor’s film plays as though the four screenwriters had a checklist beside them as they wrote (Trotsky? Do we have Trotsky in there? Yes, he appears and begins a subplot an hour and forty minutes into the film. Unibrow? Check. Lesbianism? Sir, we see Kahlo slide her hand up two sets of female thighs, sir).
For a film that depicts the life of such an extraordinarily unconventional woman, “Frida” is very conventional. The movie is so conscious of depicting Bohemians that it inadvertently treats Kahlo, Rivera and their culture like novelties. They have fearless sex and art and Latin music, but it lacks the central warmth of Kahlo’s art and life. There is an unshakable sense of artificiality; it is too easy to imagine the off-camera grips eating potato chips while Kahlo sensually tangos with Tina Modotti (well played by Ashley Judd). It’s as if the exoticized depiction of “hot-blooded” Mexicans speaks for itself, and the film need not elaborate on these preconceived notions or link them together into a coherent whole.
“Frida” never makes a big enough commitment to any single climactic moment, and so it fails to elicit an emotional response. There isn’t a scene that lasts more than six minutes and it doesn’t seem like there is a shot that stays still for more than one. Every scene is supposed to be of the utmost emotional importance to every character involved, but with so many scenes, the actors end up seeming like models. “Frida” is more like an emotional portrait gallery than a film. The many recognizable Hollywood faces (Edward Norton as John Rockefeller, Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky, Antonio Banderas, and Judd) give the movie the feel of a giant costume party.
However, “Frida” is undoubtedly visually interesting. Taymor, famous for her artistic eye in the stage version of “The Lion King” and her film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Titus”, experiments with aesthetic possibilities by interspersing some of the most pivotal scenes of Kahlo’s life with various mixed-media artworks; paintings turn into life action and Kahlo’s dreams appear in surreal hallucinations. The film may be worth seeing purely for a beautiful shot of Kahlo just after her bus accident, lying unconscious and bloody as debris and thousands of tiny gold leaf shreddings float down on to her.
“Frida” is messy and ridiculous, but it’s also really fun to watch. It’s a romp. And you haven’t seen so many boobs since your last birthday party at Hooters.