It may have pleased Frida Kahlo to know that the first I ever heard of her was in a comic book. Not just any comic book, mind you, but the acclaimed Love and Rockets, helmed by the Mexican-American brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. Gilbert has always been the more surrealist of the two, so it was natural for him to turn his pen in 1988 to a twelve-page biography of Frida’s life. (The curious can find his piece “Frida” in the Love and Rockets collection Flies on the Ceiling.) Hernandez’ work expressed Frida through his own eyes while borrowing a bit from the source — it was a case of one artist reaching out to another.
The same is true of Julie Taymor’s film Frida, which like Hernandez’ piece was based on the Hayden Herrera biography. Taymor’s background is in theater — specifically, highly stylized theater of the sort that made her vision of The Lion King a Broadway must-see. Her 1999 debut film Titus was a whirlwind of imagery built around the cycle of violence. Frida finds Taymor much more subdued; there aren’t nearly as many flights of fancy. Still, the film is as dynamic and passionate as its subject.
Salma Hayek fought tooth and nail for this project (Jennifer Lopez had a rival biopic going at one point), and this petite actress, who had always struck me as an entertaining light presence but not much more, takes the screen and holds it with a playful animal fierceness that would do — and does do — the real Frida proud. Hayek’s Frida is a young woman who falls in with the artistic crowd at school, and embraces new and exciting ideas about shattering the complacency of the bourgeois. Within her is art waiting to be freed by pain. The pain comes soon enough, in a trolley accident that leaves her immobile for months, during which she doodles butterflies on her body cast until her parents bring her some real canvasses to unload on. The script keeps reminding us that Frida is in chronic pain, though Hayek and Taymor avoid showing us the obligatory scenes of Frida wincing. We look at her paintings and we get it.
Frida packed a lot of living and loving into one 47-year life, and Taymor and her four screenwriters (five if you include Edward Norton, who appears here as Nelson Rockefeller and is said to have given the script an uncredited polish) can’t possibly include it all. As it is, we see Frida dancing with photographer Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd), trysting with the likes of Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) and Josephine Baker (not named as such here, but, as Hayek has said, “There is evidence that they, uh, knew each other”), and, most centrally, spending a great deal of time loving/hating her ultimate match, the womanizing artist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina).
Played by Molina with what can only be called flabby sensuality — he thinks he’s irresistible, therefore he is — Diego tells Frida up front that he can’t be faithful to one woman; Frida responds that what’s really important to her is loyalty. Screw whoever you want, she essentially says, but love me and come home to me. It’s a dynamic familiar from the great documentary Crumb, in which Aline Kominsky-Crumb shrugged at the idea that her husband Robert has affairs, because she has them, too. These movies seem to say that artists who exist outside conventional sexual mores nevertheless need a supportive partner attuned to their art, as well as one who is also an artist.
The movie hurtles along; the style couldn’t be more different from the forbidding tableaux of Taymor’s Titus. Taymor knows she has tons of Frida art to draw from, though, and the movie at its most cinematic is a sort of homage to Mexican art in general — its obsession with skulls and death, its roots in folk art and infatuation with cheap pop art raised to the level of romanticism, its lurid aliveness. (One might think that Pedro Almodovar would be the obvious choice for a Frida biopic, but he’s been there and done that in his own highly original work.)
Taymor brings in the Brothers Quay to animate a spooky delirium scene after Frida’s accident; she envisions Diego’s arrival in New York, where he was commissioned to paint a mural for Nelson Rockefeller (as was also dramatized in Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock), as King Kong terrorizing the city until the offended bourgeoisie shoot him down. Taymor is an artist, but she’s also an entertainer, and Frida is by very conscious design one of the most accessible art films (in all senses of the word) in years.
As bold and fearless as its heroine, Frida rescues the artist from the standard victimology-feminism line that Diego kept Frida under his thumb and was a rotten husband. (The movie concedes that Diego was a shitty husband, but — due to Taymor’s and especially Molina’s generosity of spirit in portraying him — he nonetheless comes off as a good, if flawed, man.) This movie has no time for pity, just as Frida had no time for self-pity. She dealt with her demons and her pain by pouring them into her work; in the movie, this allows her the space to live life to its fullest.
Frida begins and climaxes with a wonderfully cheesy Hollywood moment: Sickly and on the verge of pneumonia, Frida is told by her doctor that she can’t leave her bed to attend the first exhibition of her work in Mexico; her response is to have herself dressed fabulously and carried to the exhibition in her bed. One could hardly find a more over-the-top denouement outside a melodrama of the ’50s. Well, yeah, it’s Hollywood and it’s schmaltzy, but it’s also true — Frida did actually do that. And in the very last shot — the best closing image I’ve seen in a long while — Taymor does justice to the legend of Frida’s cremation: that the light from her burning hair gave her the appearance of a smile. Like Gilbert Hernandez before her, Taymor brings all of her artist’s compassion to bear on a subject that deserves it.