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Jeff M. Sellers

Sacred Monsters

Frida seeks to shock but ends up prettifying its subject

The froggy eyes of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera seemed to bulge out of their sockets, as if all-seeing, and Pablo Picasso's gaze bored into people with fulminating intensity. There is rich poetry, then, in Picasso having once remarked to Rivera that neither of them could paint eyes the way Frida Kahlo did.

The eyes that Kahlo (1907—1954) painted were often her own. The fiery wife of Rivera imbued her quiet incandescent gaze with the dark denseness of the cosmos, usually in an impassive expression that did little to mask the agony that lay bare on the rest of the canvas. The look in her eyes, nearly contemptuous, embodies the Frida Kahlo story: powerfully defying pain and self-pity before a culture, a fate, and a husband that would otherwise grind her into a mere victim.

This is the story that Frida, co-produced by and starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor (Titus), endeavors to tell. The tension between victimization and overcoming reverberated throughout Kahlo's life, and the trap before biopic-makers is to err on one side or the other—to portray her as either utterly pathetic or overly triumphant. Frida is self-conscious about the tension but fails to keep it taut.

The film's depiction of Kahlo's suffering from a skeleton-fracturing bus accident, from Rivera's infidelities, and from a miscarriage rises above the level of Spanish-language telenovelas, but not by much; as a result, her moments of overcoming are no more poignant. One doesn't go to a film about Kahlo's life without something to cry into, but in the end no handkerchief is necessary. What went wrong?

Key elements for a riveting film are in place: As Kahlo, the heretofore one-dimensional Hayek shows surprising depth and range, projecting both the firestorm and the varied winds of vulnerability in the artist. The script reflects the pointed wit of both Kahlo and Rivera (played with creamy smoothness by Alfred Molina), especially when it draws on things they really said or wrote. The film also goes a fair distance to surface the personal chemistry and artistic bond that made Kahlo and Rivera a compelling couple.

Director Taymor's forte—elaborate sets that capture the mood of an era—is on display here. She stirs the smokey bohemian air that artists gulped down in Marxism's heady days, when Mexico City, fresh off a revolution (1910-1917) that produced one of the world's first socialist constitutions, was second only to Moscow as a hothouse for Red intellectuals.

The director also enjoys playing with the sets, magically inserting Hayek's Kahlo into the artist's paintings, or, alternatively, having the paintings come to life. Interposing life and art was, after all, what Kahlo did. Sometimes the transitions from Kahlo's life to her art are a little bumpy, but Taymor turns the waking world into paintings (and vice versa) with daring and painstaking care, at times with breathtaking effect.

The paintings are beautiful, Hayek is beautiful, the sets are beautiful, and all this beauty is the soft kind to go with the candy-coating on the characters. Even Rivera is beautiful in his own slovenly way, occasionally mean but not as callous and infantile as the Rivera of history. The film can be forgiven for twisting history here and there—Hollywood is allowed to tell stories on its own terms—and for presenting a stylized portrait, a stylized life. But Taymor wants to have fun with the free-wheeling, sassy Frida more than render a tormented life in harsh strokes. Frida has all the bright, tropical colors of a Kahlo painting, but not enough of the gruesome jokes running through them.

The horrific events of her life parade by without disturbing us too much. Frida begins with Kahlo as a teenager, seemingly unhampered by the leg muscles that atrophied from polio when she was younger. At 18 comes the fateful bus accident, in which a trolley car's iron handrail impales her hip, exiting through her vagina; graphically yet dreamily depicted here, the accident required a series of painful operations to manage the effects of the damaged spine and pelvis. In a culture where Mary and motherhood are adored, Kahlo's fractured pelvis and spine frustrated her desire to have children. In the film, her abortion (as a result of her disability) and three miscarriages are scaled down to a single miscarriage, but at least there Taymor pulls no punches visually.

Frida also tones down the estrangement that came with Kahlo's wedding, when, history tells us, she fled the reception as the groom went on a drunken, pistol-waving rampage. From there her marriage to Rivera degenerated into a series of increasingly hurtful adulteries. The film does not try too hard to build up to the one between Rivera and Kahlo's sister, which led Frida to remark that she had come close to being "murdered by life."

A more genuine portrayal of this life would not require more blood; the film distributes its blood artfully enough. Lacking is a harder edge in the players and in their surroundings. Why is it that when Hollywood (Miramax Films Corp., in this case) goes on location in Mexico, we get so little grit and so few sharp edges? Mexican filmmakers are not afraid to serve up dark ambience and raw images in realistic films like Amores Perros, and even the magical-realism romance Like Water for Chocolate evokes not only the heroine's heartache but her chapped lips. Frida could fit into either of these categories, but often even the blood becomes part of a pretty picture.

Hence Hayek is left with the task of trying to convey Kahlo's agony in spite of the soft layers of insulation wrapped around its sources. She does evince the artist's physical and emotional anguish, convincingly, in a few scenes. Other times she only speaks of it in an offhand way, presumably in defiance of it. But it's hard to take her too seriously when, before her brief affair with Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Bush), she tells the exiled Communist leader that, physically, "everything hurts"—after they've just scrambled up one of the pyramids of Teotihuacán.

The film's soft edge includes a lot of sensual nudity, as per the requisite Hollywood treatment of the bohemian lifestyle. The camera has more interest in Kahlo's lesbian affairs than in her trysts with men—difficult to say why, but it's hard to forget how gay-friendly Hollywood has been, lately. Moreover, scenes involving the removal of Kahlo's casts sometimes prove a tad voyeuristic. Indeed, the immobilizing plaster corset looks like a fashion corset; never has a body cast done more to flatter a woman's figure.

On the one occasion that showing Kahlo naked would not be gratuitous, though, it doesn't happen. The trolley car accident that inexplicably separated her from her clothes, leaving her covered by blood and the contents of a bus passenger's bag of powdered gold, was one of those typically Mexican instances of macabre surrealism that spoke volumes of her fate: a tortured, gilded artist who would boldly bare her soul, along with her blood, to the world. Missed opportunity.

The softness that is most self-defeating, however, takes form in the huggy-bear character of Rivera. To begin to understand why Kahlo and many other women, Mexican and foreign, were drawn to him, it's important to show his charm, wit, artistic stature, and sensitivity; we can grant Taymor that much. But Frida shies away from portraying the full extent of Rivera's sexual double standard (he was quick to pull his pistol upon discovering any of Kahlo's male lovers), his filthiness, his gargantuan corpulence, and his childish rants.

The script doesn't deny Rivera's womanizing, but it also takes pains to explain the bohemian milieu, wherein the prevailing Marxist fashion viewed marital fidelity as just so much bourgeois posturing. Thus Frida very nearly excuses not only Rivera but Kahlo for entering into such a marriage, while prettifying its consequences.

The reason for softening Rivera is obvious. The more we hate him, the more we'll question our heroine for loving him. Rather than showing Rivera in all his monstrosity, and Kahlo in all her monstrosity, and exploring their monstrous obsession with one another, Frida plays it safe and suggests that deep down he's got a heart of gold. He's not just sensitive, he's downright sentimental, shedding tears over Kahlo's suffering as he gazes on one of her paintings. Sure, he's got that woman addiction, but what artistic genius doesn't?

Add to this prettiness a story that goes in a flat line. It barely arcs; there's no sense of the dark floodwaters gradually rising above Kahlo's nostrils. She's betrayed one episode after another, and the supposed overcoming comes in episodic affairs of her own. Frida begins to taste like U.S.-style Mexican food—too sweet, and for all that color just a bit bland. Those otherwise harsh jalapeños are pickled and tame.

All the same, this will probably taste fine to the Frida cult that has emerged since the 1983 publication of Hayden Herrera's astonishingly thorough Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. The film highlights all the traits that make Kahlo a candidate for deification in our age.

A feminist pioneer in a patriarchal authoritarian culture, Kahlo is a martyr in the struggle to become independent. She flouts sexual mores, with the film hinting at the superiority of lesbianism. (Cunningly constructed to have its cake and eat it too, Frida mixes standard-order sexploitation with Feminist Consciousness-Raising.) Her habitual Tehuan costume announces her pride in her indigenous ancestry, with its connotations of spirituality without religion, though Kahlo was an atheist. She's an apolitical Communist: her communism, abstracted from much of the history of the 20th century, becomes yet another lifestyle choice. Finally, she's a secular saint: like the "sacred heart" Christs and Marys of Mexican Catholicism, she is continually ripping open her chest to offer the blood-red organ within.

For a body-piercing generation this may resonate keenly, but Kahlo offers more than an open wound. She also kicks butt. Displaying her unibrow and mustache long before the vogue for pierced lips and tongues, Kahlo created an image of defiant self-possession to which many eagerly conform. Hence the Frida keychains, mugs, and T-shirts to go with the two novels (Kate Braverman's The Incantation of Frida K. and Barbara Mujica's Frida) published last year, not to mention Carole Maso's unconventional meditation, Beauty Is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo.

Nor should we ignore the appearance of the religion of Kahloism, described in its website as being for sexy people with cool clothes "who are not afraid to be themselves in a world that seems to reward conformity."

Most admirers do not regard her as the one true god, though many women identify with her sufferings on some level. Before the movie screened, I emailed a friend in Spain—not a practicing Kahloist, but a Madrid native in her early 30s who identifies deeply with the artist—and asked her to explain what Kahlo meant to her. She replied with a poem. Among other things, the 69-line poem suggests that Kahlo awakened her to Mexicanism—that which is indigenous, mysterious, and passionate—and gave her a timeless point of connection regarding uniquely female suffering.

With Sonia Castaño Salvador's permission, I have dared to translate the final verses:

Steles and petroglyphs keep secrets
Like the symbols in Frida's paintings
Color reproduces those trances of pain
Present are the whites and reds
Hospital sheets
And blood from wounds and scars
In her body and in her womanly cosmos
Beautiful Frida, like a paper kite
I fly with you,
I evoke you, wherever you may be …

Even with its figurative soft focus, Frida will not disappoint those looking for the paradox and passion of Mexicanismo. And it has its say on a feminine ordering of the inner universe.

But what would Kahlo herself have made of this telling of her life? Her dark, level gaze might well see this work as she saw most everything else bearing the usa imprint: just so much superficial posturing. Friends of Kahlo and Rivera recalled them to biographer Herrera as "the sacred monsters." In a harsher, truer light, the monstrous duo would be portrayed with the severity and integrity that Martin Scorscese drew on in Raging Bull to re-create, and implicitly redeem, the monstrous Jake La Motta. Frida needs to make us wince more. The artist's ferocious defiance of her destiny would then strike the unsparing blow we expect from her.

Jeff M. Sellers, associate editor of Christianity Today magazine, previously worked as journalist in Mexico and Spain and compiled and translated Folk Wisdom of Mexico: Proverbios y Dichos Mexicanos (Chronicle Books, 1994).

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