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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 ...

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