Beautiful Picture

Issue section: 

Review of 'Frida', director Julie Taymor

Frida Kahlo was an extraordinarily colourful character--in her own right as a popular and unconventional painter, but also as the wife of one of the greatest modern painters, Diego Rivera, and sometime lover of one of the greatest Russian revolutionaries, Leon Trotsky. It is therefore no accident that her life has been celebrated in many books and plays. This rendering, 'Frida', directed by Julie Taymor with Salma Hayek as Frida, is a very worthy addition to the list. Filmed entirely in Mexico, largely in the buildings inhabited by the people in the drama, it has an air of intimacy and authenticity. Salma Hayek is magnificent as Frida, and strikingly beautiful, as Frida was. Grandchildren of Diego Rivera and Trotsky have attested to the resemblance of the actors to the people they portrayed.

Frida Kahlo's life was determined by a terrible bus accident she suffered as a teenager, which frequently put her in hospital, required numerous operations, and often caused her great pain. All this suffering entered into her paintings, making them very real and sometimes painful to look at. She was a very independent, freedom-loving, courageous person who, as soon as she was able to walk again, had the audacity to seek out Diego Rivera, already one of the greatest of the great Mexican artists, to get a professional critique of her work.

Diego was renowned not only for his painting but also for his sexual philandering, and when they meet it is clear he expects to behave with her in his usual manner. In a sensitively constructed scene Frida carefully but insistently fends him off, demanding his artistic critique alone. This meeting turned out to be the defining moment in their lives, Diego admiring her painting enormously, and being charmed by her tenacity and beauty, and Frida being swept off her feet. But the relationship, and marriage a few years later, was open, both agreeing that they were free to have relations with whoever they pleased.

Frida, in fact, was bisexual, and had numerous affairs with both men and women. This is illustrated in one of the most beautiful scenes in the film, where Frida outdrinks a number of men to win a dance with a beautiful woman. Frida and the woman take to the floor in a captivating, sexy dance which unmistakably stamps her bisexuality.

The two artists respected each other enormously, but the marriage was never smooth. Diego's affair with Frida's sister put too much of a strain on even Frida's tolerance, and they separated, each going their own way.

One of Frida's more well known affairs at this time was with Trotsky, for who Diego had assiduously worked to gain asylum in Mexico, and who he had invited to stay at this house, having asked Frida to remain for this purpose. Trotsky's grandson disputes the fact of the affair, claiming that Trotsky was never free of his bodyguards for long enough to be able to conduct an affair without their knowledge. The film, however, endorses the common belief of their affair. Trotsky, played by Geoffrey Rush, is probably the weakest character in the film. He fails to make the impact that the most important leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 after Lenin, well known for his knowledge and brilliance, should. His appearance in the film is fairly brief. That could have enabled a glittering and memorable impact to be made, worthy of Trotsky's stature. Instead he appears as hardly more than a footnote in Frida Kahlo's life--which is probably inevitable in a film about her--but a colourless footnote unworthy of its author.

On the other hand, Salma Hayek, who is also one of the film's producers, is outstanding in her role. Completely devoted to her subject, whose art she always admired, looking remarkably like Frida, and wearing the beautiful clothes and jewellery Frida always sought, she lives the part and carries the film with great elan. Her nomination for an Oscar is richly deserved. Alfred Molina is splendid beside her, and also looks like Diego Rivera, whose role he plays.

One of the main things about the making of this film on the part of the director and the rest of the film makers is their respect for and devotion to the subject. This gives the film an intimacy and authenticity which enhances its enjoyment.