Queen of Pain
With Frida — the story of the profoundly passionate and uncompromising Mexican painter Frida Kahlo — it’s evident that a few folks in marketing know how to work the demographics (it’ll be extremely PC, possibly mandatory, to gush in adoration of it), but that’s the first and last cynical comment of this review. Frida is sensational. Masses of people will be discussing it, and with good reason. Director Julie Taymor (Titus) is touched by genius, her entire crew is crackerjack, and, in the title role, Salma Hayek is several notches above Oscar-worthy. Frida is an epic experience that will reverberate around the world.
When we first meet Frida as an adolescent — convincingly portrayed by Hayek throughout (though she wimped out on the mustache) — the girl’s already a feral hellcat, riding her boyfriend, Alejandro (Diego Luna), within spitting distance of her mother, Mathilde (Patricia Reyes Spindola), and sister, Cristina (Mia Maestro). We catch some handy familial exposition via her father, Guillermo (Roger Rees), and watch her mocking the womanizing exploits of cosmopolitan artist and ardent Communist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina).
Then comes the accident; something truly awful happens to Frida (an incident made violently beautiful by Taymor, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and editor Françoise Bonnot), and her suffering catapults her already fiery psyche into new realms of perception. The girl is dead, the woman is born. And she’s hungry.
As a young adult, Kahlo turns to Rivera as an artistic mentor. Soon the two marry, setting up some fascinating exchanges with Rivera’s previous wife, Lupe Marán (Valeria Golino). Frida and Diego’s romance is a remarkable (and remarkably sexy) study of sexual politics.
In a film that showcases some of the best direction of actors this year, Taymor the visual stylist takes Kahlo’s experience to a mythic, universal level. Young Kahlo’s coma is filled with macabre skeletal imagery, and the movie follows the adult Frida to her deathbed, comfortable in her pain and her grand pursuit of pleasure. For us, those pleasures include terrific forays into animation and composition, plus cameos from Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas (genuinely funny), Saffron Burrows and Karine Plantadit-Bageot.
The film’s regular politics are equally engrossing. Communist Rivera runs counter to conservative expectations while painting a mural in New York for Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton). Global ideological chaos continues as Rivera and Kahlo host Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) and his wife (Margarita Sanz) at their home in Mexico, with Kahlo’s sensual intervention leading indirectly to Trotsky’s doom.
But despite its constant dips into darkness, this is a film of light, of life, and we emerge focusing not on pain but on our vast and endlessly colorful potential. Brava.