Director Julie Taymor (Titus) has fashioned a story that is overflowing with emotions that run the gamut from the exuberance of youth through to the straitjacket of pain that racked Frida for her entire life after a trolley accident she suffered as a premedical student of 18 in 1925. This life changing event lefther with fractures of her back, collarbone and ribs, a shattered pelvis, along with leg and foot problems. She experienced thirty two operations over the course of her life, although this particular aspect is only lightly touched upon through verbal recitations. It is interesting that the film started and ended on similar fronts. Body casts and the electric and pulsating use of colours on Frida's family home began and ended the film, rather coming full circle. Frida Kahlo died from related complications associated with her injuries in 1954. It was from her invalid's bed that she began her life in the artistic world.
Salma Hayek (Wild, Wild West, Traffic) portrays the firey Frida and while I was initially impressed with her work in the first half of this film, more often than not as it went on, it was apparent that because of her fascination with this role and her efforts to get it made, she was overtaken by not setting boundaries for herself. Certain scenes seemed to scream, "This is an Oscar winning performance, look and see!". While she portrayed the character physically, and a certain essence of Frida's personality welded its way to the viewer, Hayek knew that all the stops had to be pulled out for this role. A touching moment occurs when she suffers a miscarriage, and like any mother would have done, makes her way from her hospital bed, screaming to be allowed to see the son her body could not give life to. The next scene is serenely quiet, as the audience is entreated entrance into that room, witnessing the remains of the miscarried child residing in a jar of formaldehyde as she paints a picture of herself and the pain she has experienced. Little vignettes were scored occasionally by Ms. Hayek, but they continued to be overwhelmed by her uncertainty, and some of the results toyed with soap opera.
There are several scenes scattered as leaves that are artfully rendered in a surrealist fashion. One of them is the trolley accident done in slow motion to create the leaden passage of time and space as the passengers careen towards uncertainty and harm. The filtering down of gold dust belonging to a passenger that only moments before Frida had inquired of, highlights the ugliness that has become her life forever with the shattered and bloodied body on the floor of the trolley. The gold is symbolic of fame that sprinkles over her and projects another part of the future that awaits her through the course of her remaining years.
After the accident, Frida is taken to hospital. The accompanying nightmare that Frida fashions in her mind with toy Day of the Dead skeletons that twirl, contort, bend, swoosh and sway, and who eventually speak in a disjointed tangle of vocabulary as they morph into doctors and nurses caring for her, is mind bending. They are harbingers of Death who are cheated of this victim, at least for the time being.
When Frida and Rivera go to New York City to honour the artistic commission rendered to the latter by the Rockefeller family, the boredom and feeling of a being a fish out of water and having to deal with Rivera's continued infidelities, works its magic on Frida who, after seeing the film "King Kong" to occupy her time, envisions Rivera in the same role, scaling the Empire State Building and eventually tumbling down like Humpty Dumpty. The black and white scenes that scatter hints of colour within them, accent situations central to the theme of the setting. These mentioned scenes were like dreams, at times confusing to the person (Frida) experiencing them, but predicters of the future as well and how it would unfold.
The use of Frida's paintings taking on a "life of their own" act as catalysts that echo her life at that point in time, are masterfully used to great effect. Frida and her mother (after her death) holding hands side by side; Frida's portrait crying and the painting on of real tears; Frida cutting her hair after Rivera's affair with her sister and looking in a mirror beside a portrait of herself in a masculine suit and as she walks away, the figure moving as well; Frida on her deathbed as the flames consume it and the painting it is based on.
Alfred Molina (Chocolat, Boogie Nights) as Diego Rivera was entirely believeable in a role that seemed to be tailor made to his talents, which have been all too sadly, vastly underrated and underused by the film industry. His Rivera was a huge bear of a man, who loved life and lived it as he saw fit. His wives were many and they kept company with a legion of mistresses and affairs that in some instances lasted as long as it took to change partners. Molina captures the persona of the artist and all the jocularity, eccentricty and joie de vivre that Rivera would allow his massive ego and character to permit. About the only thing that Rivera could be true to besides hmself was the Communist Party. There was a certain semblance of chemistry between Hayek and Molina or at least a camaraderie that was paramount to lending confidence to the audience as they watched the characters onscreen.
Two other actors, in small parts, were entirely wasted. Edward Norton (Red Dragon, American History X, Primal Fear) as Nelson Rockefeller was ineffectual and lacking in scope, even though his part was miniscule and temporary. It had the effect of being done on a lark, perhaps during a bit of off time that he possessed at the time. The sad waste, though, was reserved for Geoffrey Rush (Shine, The Tailor of Panama) as Leon Trotsky. His makeup made him resemble for all the world, a grandfatherly type, and it made for a slightly uncomfortable feeling as I watched him emoting love to Frida.
Another shortcoming of the film is the use of famous people who helped to make up the world of Frida and Rivera. Unless one were well versed history and the collection of friends they kept and hoi polloied with, the audience would be hard pressed to know precisely just WHO was crossing the screen. Tina Modott (Ashley Judd), the Italian photographer, Mexican painter David Siquerios (Antonio Banderas), the meeting of Frida and a woman looking suspiciously like Josephine Baker in Paris and the presumption of a lesbian relationship, Hemingway in New York City, Jean Charlot in Mexico, Edward Weston, Andre Breton, Trotsky's assassin Mercador. . .
Kudos should be reserved for the art direction by Bernardo Trujillo, whose use of the vivid colours favoured by Frida, as they reverberated loud and clear in their brassiness and life. Set decoration by Hannia Robledo allowed us to breathe in the very oils of the studios and the canvases that resided within them. The costume designs of Julie Weiss deserve special recognition for the complexity and courtesies they extended towards the awareness of the characters they encompassed, none more so than Frida Kahlo.
A certain degree of good faith on the part of the audience had to be entertained. An explanation of this rests solely on the shoulders of the writers. For a woman who had suffered such massive injuries and at one point in the film, made a vague reference to having a body like a "jigsaw puzzle," it was never really apparent as Frida cruised her way from affair to affair, both hetero and bi-sexual. The body contortions, the pretzel positions, the fluidity of her movements never quite explained themselves to us as coming from a body racked by continual pain. The last years of Frida's life seemed to be compressed for time's sake. It is a similar fate that overtook the film, "Hilary and Jackie" when the last 14 years of Jacqueline du Pre's life amounted to a matter of minutes before the end credits began to roll.
Overall, this is not an unlikeable film, but rather an experience. In some ways, restraint was warranted and in others, it should have been given full rein. Good efforts were put forth overall, and Salma Hayek is to be commended for an admirable try her first time out as a producer. Without her vision, love of her subject and forcefulness, a film about this great Mexican artist might still be making its way across the vast canyons of Hollywood studios who perhaps thought that there was limited interest in someone with an "ethnic background." How wrong they were.