A Woman with Cajones
Julie Taymor’s Frida pulses with color. Bright oranges, limey greens, deep blues, and crisp yellows: most of these hues are borrowed from Frida Kahlo’s paintings, all approximate the dynamic fervor of her brief, tumultuous life. Most of her work depicted her experience, the ways she appeared to herself, the ways she felt. Always, they burned with color.
At its best, Taymor’s movie pulls enormous imaginative energy from Frida’s chronic self-representations. When Frida (played by Salma Hayek, who spent some 8 years pulling this project together) marries Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), their wedding portrait literally comes alive, their forms seeming to melt from their flat, stiff poses, their shoulders giving way as they join in a party of celebrants forming around them. Or, the process reverses, and life becomes a painting, as when Frida miscarries and, unable to talk with her husband, whose own grief isolates him, paints herself, prone, broken, and exposed, the fetus floating above her, bloody and raw.
This inventive melding of art and biography grants Frida—written by Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava, and Anna Thomas, and based on a biography by Hayden Herrera—a peculiar and pleasing elegance. Certainly, these slips between art and life, captured as art, reflect the reasons for making the movie to begin with: Frida understood herself more profoundly than most people can, perhaps because she spent so much time with herself, alone, in bed.
It’s well known that Frida Kahlo suffered mightily and throughout her life, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. This pain became the primary source of her art (her many self-portraits are her most famous legacy) as well as a dreadful, inevitable focus. The film opens on Frida flat on her back, in the bed that will become her death bier (she was cremated, per her wishes: “Burn this Judas of a body,” she tells Diego), as she goes to her one and only Mexican exhibition, in 1953. As the truck carrying her pitches about on the rocky road, Frida winces, then looks up. Lips majestically red, necklace gleaming, Frida looks up at the mirror above her, fastened to the bed’s wooden canopy: seeing herself, she draws unspeakable strength, and the film takes you back in time.
It’s a familiar device, surely (though seeing Salma Hayek running through a hallway in a schoolgirl’s uniform is vaguely startling), and it sends the film into common territory: this is what happened to Frida, this is how she lived with her parents, this is what her house looked like. The film’s first part shows that she was a rebellious, willful, sensual child, having sex with her boyfriend in the closet, joining in a family photo dressed in a man’s suit, harassing the famous Diego Rivera while he’s at her school to paint a mural.
From here, the film introduces the first of the “two big accidents” that afflict Frida, the 1925 trolley wreck that breaks her back and leaves her in a body cast for years, and leads to some 35 surgical operations. (In fact, Frida’s pain began much earlier, with polio at age 6, but the film leaves this out). The crash occurs as if it’s a ghastly dream: the trolley skids, she sees the wall coming at her, she appears crumpled, from an overhead shot, her body covered in the gold leaf she’s just seen in a craftsman’s hand, an instant before the disaster. The film cuts to a gorgeously grotesque animated sequence, menacing, rattling dance-of-death skeletons who transform into her doctors, as they start listing her broken bones and offer a grim prognosis.
Throughout Frida’s recovery, her photographer father (Roger Rees) dotes on her, while her mother (Patricia Reyes Spindola) frets that her chance for “proper” marriage is gone. This standard parental divide more or less sets up Frida’s lifelong dedication to crossing gender expectations. She won’t stay home and cook, instead throwing herself into her painting and politics (she and Diego are dedicated Communists) with bracing enthusiasm. When her comrade Diego asks her to marry him (admiring that she is “a woman with cajones”), she articulates the principles most important to her, and so, the film’s thematic focus: if Diego, 21 years her senior and a notorious philanderer with two failed marriages behind him, cannot promise fidelity, he must be loyal. He agrees, they wed, and of course, he fails her.
The movie’s liberties in depicting the various calamities that befall Frida are alternately inspired and silly. Inspired when she looks out a window and sees her dress on a clothesline, an image, paused here, that becomes a famous painting. Inspired when Frida and Diego arrive in New York, the moment depicted as a series of mobile 3D postcard images. (This is the trip when he paints the infamous “Lenin” mural for John D. Rockefeller [Edward Norton] an episode more coherently rendered in Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock.) Inspired when, while passing her time at a movie house, Frida imagines her husband as King Kong. Diego goes on to engage in revolving door sexual liaisons (depicted literally), and she has her own tryst with one of his conquests (forgettable Saffron Burrows).
But the movie turns silly when Frida initially wins Diego’s heart by out-drinking him and muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros (Antonio Banderas, on screen for about two minutes), then dancing a sexy tango with photographer Tina Modetti (an unconvincing Ashley Judd). The scene is crazy-fake and obvious: Diego gazes on the women dancing, then kissing, with a look that’s part admiration and part lust. Too bad Frida doesn’t catch this look before she agrees to marry her “toad.”
Most accounts have Frida Kahlo “holding her own” against Diego’s womanizing by bedding as many people as she could herself. As “liberated” as the stories may sound, the film also suggests that there’s a cost for Frida in adopting such tactics. The most irredeemable meltdown in their relationship comes when Frida discovers Diego’s affair with her own sister Christina (Mía Maestro), at which point the film’s trajectory changes. She kicks out Diego and Christina (and Christina’s kids, here serving as props more than anything else). She drinks with Diego’s previous ex-wife, Lupe Marin (Valeria Golino) and, when they finish ticking off his many failings, decide that she should try to sell her own paintings, in order to be free of him forever. The film doesn’t really follow through on that, and you’re left wondering how she lived.
Cut to another encounter with Diego (the film actually loses energy when he’s off screen): he visits her at her mother’s grave (of all places) to ask her help in looking after/entertaining Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), seeking sanctuary in Mexico. Frida and Trotsky connect, intellectually, and so they promptly jump into bed. Within a scene, Frida’s changed her mind, guilt-ridden on a rainy day no less, when she overhears Trotsky’s wife bemoaning his disloyalty. It’s probably a good lesson, if it’s yours, but here it’s heavy-handed.
Seeking respite from Mexico and all she knows there, Frida goes to Paris, where she enjoys nightclubs, cafés, and the attentions of Josephine Baker—don’t blink or you’ll miss it, a one-scene only rendezvous, so sensationally filmed and so under-motivated that you may wonder what it has to do with anything, aside from demonstrating that “this happened.”
At other times, splendid times, Frida is more expansive, less interested in including figures or events than in complicating and contextualizing specific (usually renowned) events. Frida’s barroom encounter with “Death” is unforgettable: singer Chavela Vargas’s riveting performance laments the ways that life becomes tortuous and also exemplifies the very point this film is making. Pain is life. Even for a woman with cajones.