At one point during Julie Taymor’s exquisite film, FRIDA, Diego Rivera tells Frida Kahlo that while he can only paint what he sees, she paints from the heart. And so it is as it should be that Taymor’s biopic of Frida’s life is the landscape of Frida’s heart than a straightforward telling of the events of her life.
The film begins at the end of Frida’s life. Her body giving out, forbidden to leave her bed by her doctor, she is being carted, bed and all, to the first exhibition of her work in her native country. As the bed is jolted in transit, she says, “Careful, this corpse is still breathing.” It’s emblematic of the drive and spirit that drove her. Though what she calls her Judas body is on its last legs, the eyes are vibrant and blend seamlessly into the eyes of her younger self, before the accident that changed her life, before the relationship with fellow artist Diego Rivera that changed her life just as much.
And while the film is of necessity episodic, the emotional journey it tells is complete, refracting that journey through the prism of Fridas inner eye. Hence doctors attending the semi-conscious accident victim are skeletons, though ones with lolling, obscenely moinst and lolling tongue. The weeks spent killing time in New York as Diego painted a mural for John D. Rockefeller morph into a black-and-white riff on KING KONG, with Diego as the great ape and Frida as the hapless Fay Wray.
And how else to portray the woman who was the lover of Trotsky and Josephine Baker, who endured and overcame an accident in which a pole pierced her hip, shattering it and exiting her vagina, who accepted her husbands infidelities but not his disloyalty, and who painted ferocious canvases of savage and aching beauty but who was never quite convinced of her own talent and power? Taymor brings those canvasses into the real world, creating tableaux that make Fridas inner life manifest and more real than real. Taymors vision works in subtler ways, too. In almost every scene, Frida, who dressed in flamboyant Mexican peasant-style garb, is in the strong clear colors typical of that while everyone and everything else sports colors that dull and drab. The result is that while Frida may have willingly lived in Diegos shadow in life, on screen she is the unquestioned focus.
Above all this, though, is Salma Hayak’s devouring presence as Frida. Hayak devoted six years to bringing this film to fruition and that drive is palpably present here and used to superb effect. Whether playing scenes of Frida in a full body cast, or dancing a seductive tango with Ashley Judds slinky Tina Modotti, the blazing raw energy leaps from the screen with an almost physical impact. Sharing the screen, and holding his own, is Alfred Molina as a prettied-up Diego Rivera. Still fat, Fridas pet name for him was the Spanish equivalent of lard ass, but with soulful eyes capable of expressing that magnetic quality that made his irresistible to women as well as the hurt he feels when he discovers that Frida has paid him back in kind. Roger Rees as Fridas German-Jewish father brings a sweet counterpoint as well as a lovely, gentle quality to the proceedings.
The script, which has four writers credited, fixes Frida firmly in her times. This was a Mexico of progressive thinking, peopled with intellectuals whose passion extended beyond the bedroom and into politics, philosophy and art in ways that makes the modern equivalent pale into arch poseurs by comparison.
There has not been and will not be a better film this year than FRIDA. It is a feast for the senses, the mind, and the soul.