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Take a Hayek

Salma Gets Middlebrow With a Monobrow in Frida

The Boho (Lap) Dance: Salma Hayek poses atop Alfred Molina in Frida.

By Ian Grey | Posted

Frida Kahlo was a bisexual artist of Mexican/Jewish/ Hungarian descent, a victim of patriarchal art-world politics, a survivor of spinal injuries and polio, and a communist who died at the age of 47. If she hadn't existed, an opportunistic liberal would have had to invent her. Which is pretty much what Titus director Julie Taymor's white-washed hagiography has done. Equal parts vanity project and fact-oblivious idol making, Frida is so poorly executed on so many levels that only the available space limits a complete listing of its manifold failings.

Salma Hayek doesn't act as much as bludgeon us into accepting that Kahlo was an Indomitable Force of Life. With her monobrow furrowed, eyes lasering dominance, and upthrust power cleavage, Hayek's Kahlo seems willing to bust heads at any suggestion that Kahlo was an actual human with many documented failings. Unsurprisingly, Madonna originally lobbied for the role.

Based on a script by no less than five writers (Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava, and Anna Thomas, plus an unaccredited draft by Edward Norton), Frida opens during her teen years in a 1920s CGI-enhanced Mexico City so relentlessly picturesque that it makes the CGI-enhanced Paris of Amelie look colorless in comparison. Kahlo soon suffers a hideous trolley-car accident: a handrail pierces her abdomen and exits through her vagina. Kahlo spends months bedridden and, working on a bedside scaffold, begins her career-long use of herself as a central image in her paintings.

Kahlo grows up into an unbelievably upbeat artist, her work a sort of memoirist surrealism laced with Mexican pop and mythological elements. She meets and marries muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), a rotund compulsive womanizer. Possibly aware that having her heroine's marriage to a womanizer could be construed as self-destructive or just plain pitiful, Taymor revamps Kahlo's acceptance of him as yet another manifestation of her Indomitable Will.

The rest of the movie is basically a Classics Illustrated checklist of events in Kahlo's life. We see her drinking men under the table while arguing banalities about communism and how artists suffer a great deal. (Just why communism might have been important in Mexico at the time is a topic the film assumes we're disinterested in, and so omits.) There's a truncated account of Kahlo and Rivera's sojourns in New York. Her lifelong addiction to pain pills and alcohol is fluffed into an indicator of free-spirited rebellion. Her lesbian affairs are lensed in the manner of Maxim pictorials.

But Hayek--whose performance isn't much more than a film-long shriek of, Admire me, goddammit!--really didn't stand a chance with a director whose idea of Art is the candied surrealism of a midcareer Red Hot Chili Peppers video. Taymor approaches narrative cohesion with something close to scorn, but also similar to simple inability.

The director's many look-at-me set pieces are sometimes cute (such as a quick animated bit where Kahlo watches King Kong and imagines her husband as the ape) but lack the insightful excess of Ken Russell consciously using anachronisms in biopics like Mahler. A distracting animated fever dream utilizes electrified Mexican Day of the Dead imagery to create something similar to a really cool techno CD cover. Taymor's compulsive pictorialism is visually numbing: If everything is incredibly pretty, nothing is beautiful.

When the dialogue--clunker-strafed, obvious, anachronism-packed--isn't making you cringe, the narrative is busy omitting important scenes. Kahlo's father, Guillermo (Roger Rees), becomes gravely ill, but does he die? Beats me--in the next scene, we see Kahlo mourning over the grave of her mother. At another point, Rivera and Kahlo receive a hefty check from Nelson Rockefeller (Norton); the two artists then moan about being broke--in the same scene.

Her lesbian liaisons do make sense, they're just retrogressive in the extreme. Rivera happily screws everything that moves. When Kahlo has sex, especially gay sex, it's either in reaction to her wayward husband, an act of loneliness, or a means of getting attention. God forbid she be horny for the sheer sake of wild horniness.

There are indications that Taymor can handle scenes with both elegance and relative complexity. Taymor shoots a series of lap dissolves of an immobile Kahlo in full body cast, waiting for her bones to mend; it's a neat summation of passing time and the intolerable boredom of recovery. When Kahlo miscarries, Rivera leaves her hospital room with a painting of hers and weeps; we don't know if it's for the loss of the child or from her painting's brilliance. It's a simple bit of ambiguity that conveys more about Kahlo and Rivera's relationship and the nature of artists than all of Frida's desperate, dishonest attempts to con-job its heroine into sainthood.

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