Frida (2002): Taymor’s Biopic of Artist Kahlo, Starring Salma Hayek in Oscar Nominated Role

In the biopic Frida, director Julie Taymor portrays the work of the late artist Frida Kahlo with clarity of vision and sharp interpretation, drawing the narrative brushstrokes of her tragic life with the soul-stirring colors of her paintings.

In the title role, Salma Hayek heads a strong ensemble that includes Alfred Molina, Mia Maestro and Ashley Judd, and graphic animation, which brings Kahlo’s work to life, makes Frida a triumph of the imagination.

Starting with her teenage years, the story follows Kahlo’s journey from the horrific bus accident, which left her crippled for the rest of her life. Through the years, her pain grows deeper as her artistry flourishes little by little. After recovering mobility from her accident, she asks the womanizing Mexican painter Diego Rivera (Molina) to appraise her work. Entranced, he encourages her, and they join forces as painters first, then as revolutionaries, and finally as lovers.

But the demons that linger in her ailing body gather into an evil force that pervades her tempestuous relationship with Diego. When they eventually decide to marry, they’re aware that their problems are only beginning. As Diego’s career begins to blossom and the two head to New York, their love is tested through unusual infidelities, which continue with startling regularity through most of their lives. While Frida quietly continues to paint better paintings throughout Diego’s rise in popularity–professionally and personally–her interior, body and soul, is beginning to break down. It’s her ability and strength to capture this breakdown that helps shape her into a great artist; ironically, this blossoming is the most uncaptured aspect of her life, and also the film’s weakest aspect.

Frida’s success as an artist seems to be merely a footnote in an already complex and grueling existence, narrowing the focus to the artist’s pain more than her dynamic use of the former.  But Taymor’s directorial approach compensates for this problem by highlighting Kahlo’s work through all of her creative choices. The boldness of the cinematography, the consistency of the artistic design, and the stunning costume choices bring the art of Kahlo’s world to the forefront of the story, even if in the script her personal life seems to be overshadowing her artwork.

After returning to Mexico, changed and estranged, a final affair pushes Frida to the edge, and she and Diego separate. It’s at this point–much too late in the tale–that Frida’s artwork begins to be noticed. Her rise to success in Paris is overshadowed in the film by her lingering love for Diego, to whom she eventually returns, only for him to reject her once more. As their relationship breaks down, Frida begins to sell more of her work, and medications and operations aimed at re-starting her still damaged body seem to fail with greater frequency. In speedy succession, brought on by an outbreak of gangrene, Frida’s limbs begin to slow to a halt and the cripple becomes an invalid. However, Frida never quits painting and at the end of her life is rewarded not only by receiving a show in her own country, but also by the return of Diego, who cares incessantly for her in her final years. This reversal of compassion from Frida’s love for Diego, to Diego’s love for Frida, is unexpected and is not accounted for in the script; but as in life, love follows no discernable rules.

It’s possible that Frida’s own story accounts for the greatest obstacles in making the movie, a struggle common to biopics: how does an entire life fit the small frame of a film’s narrative? The way Taymor has answered this question brings into focus the aesthetic elements of Kahlo’s life–her art, her relationship with Diego, and all of the physical embodiments of her life of suffering.

Hayek’s performance so heartily embodies the painter that she and the actress become indistinguishable. But while Hayek’s Frida may look familiar on the outside, there’s little interior life for her designated by the script.  The animated sequences of Kahlo’s paintings remain the most honest representation of this inner life.

Even so, despite shortcomings, the role is a physical triumph for Hayek, and one of her most psychologically demanding ones to date.

The visual elements, and the mixed sorrow and life that characterize Khalo’s work, make Frida the movie more effective than the scenario upon which it is based. A story that might seem unrealistic, haphazard or bizarre on paper can only be seen from the inside out, and that’s what Taymor has done.