For all its undeniable merits, Frida is the most disappointing film of 2002. There are moments in this account of the life of artist Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) that are among cinema’s finest this year. Unfortunately — and maddeningly — they’re sandwiched in between the most impossibly dry account of Kahlo’s life imaginable. I wish the entire film had just been bad — I wouldn’t feel so cheated.
Moments of dazzling brilliance sit cheek-by-jowl with pages and pages of passionless prosaity. The problem is a common one with biopics. The screenplay tries to condense its subject’s life into 120 minutes rather than distill that life into a more tractable chapter, one that captures the essence of the person.
In the case of Frida Kahlo, the temptation to incorporate it all is understandable, even if the attempt runs aground. It would be hard to find 46 years of life more packed with incident than Kahlo’s – her background, the near-fatal accident that left her in life-long pain, her stormy marriage to painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), her affair with Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), etc. The problem is that by cramming all these details — and more — into two hours, the film tends to lose sight of Kahlo as a person, making her more defined by what she did than by what she was.
By the end of the film, I felt I knew a lot of factoids about Kahlo, but I never felt I knew much about the woman herself — and worse, I didn’t really care about her as depicted on the screen. I hasten to say that this is not the fault of Salma Hayek’s performance — though she must bear some blame as co-producer and for (reportedly) recruiting her boyfriend Edward Norton to rewrite much of the script. Hayek gives a convincing, amusing, even brave performance, but nothing about the screenplay really gets under her skin. Ironically — especially if Norton did re-write — the film offers a much more vivid and sympathetic portrait of Diego Rivera, a role in which Molina delivers a brilliant performance.
However, there is much to admire in Julie Taymor’s film. When the movie gets into Kahlo’s art, it really comes to life. Integrating the characters literally into the paintings was a stroke of brilliance. Taymor’s point — that Kahlo’s paintings mirrored her life and pain and even foretold her death — is well made. In a few amazing shots, she captures much of the essence of Kahlo — or at least her interpretation of the artist.
There are also moments of extreme cinematic playfulness. The shorthand rendition of Kahlo and Rivera in New York that intercuts bits of King Kong and finally presents Rivera as Kong climbing the Empire State Building is wonderful — nearly equal to Ken Russell’s visionary biopics of the 1970s. The point is made economically, cleverly, personally, and with keen insight into the characters. A similar feeling graces the sequence where Kahlo goes to Paris. And the bus accident that almost kills her is a rare example of filmmaking at once powerful and delicate. The director uses the whole cinematic arsenal to re-create a frightful event, yet what we are most apt to remember is the swift escape of a bluebird from a hand, subtly conveying the enormous loss Kahlo will suffer from the accident.
This is real filmmaking, but it’s undermined by so much of the rest of the film that it can’t rescue Frida and push it toward greatness. It’s all worthy — even with the somewhat distracting use of big names in small roles — but it never quite adds up. The film’s ending, for example, while brilliant on a number of levels fails on the essential one: Power. Kahlo’s death and her depiction of it as art ought to be powerful, but the movie hasn’t managed to make her real enough to attain that all-important power. I wanted to love this film, but only loved bits and pieces of it. See it by all means, but don’t expect the shattering experience it might have been.