Monday, January 23, 2012

"I Paint My Own Reality": Julie Taymor's Frida (2002)

***I wrote this look at Frida a few years back for the excellent and much-missed blog Film for the Soul. I have recently dusted it-off a bit and am now presenting it here.***

Few theatrical experiences have left me more incensed than the one I experienced in the winter of 2000 for Julie Taymor’s Titus. I still remember stumbling out of the Lexington, Ky. Theater, where I saw it with my equally pissed off friend David, into the winter night and thinking that a bitter cold fresh air had never felt quite so good.

It wasn’t that I disliked Taymor’s first film, it was more like I despised it. It’s a bit hard for me to articulate what it was about Titus that angered me so much, but I felt like my resentment towards the film was palatable that cold winter evening, as I made my way sleepily back to my home in Frankfort, Ky. Part of it was my love for Shakespeare’s original play, and my thought that if there was one of his works that needed a solid adaptation then Titus Andronicus was the one. Another aspect that was swelling the seething anger I was feeling was the near universal acclaim the film was receiving from both critics and the public. Had I seen another work entirely? Perhaps an ill conceived and particularly rough cut had made its way to certain theaters and I had been unlucky enough to catch it. I knew of course this wasn’t the case; a fact that made my feeling of disenchantment with the world around me even stronger. Finally though, what made me really angry was the fact that it was obvious Julie Taymor was extremely talented, and despite my hatred of what she did to Shakespeare’s most savage play, I had to admit that.

Flash back to a few years before to my first experience seeing Salma Hayek on the big screen. I had missed all of Salma’s early work including her first films with Robert Rodriguez, all of which I would catch up with later, so the first time I got a good look at her came in 1996 while watching the thrilling Rodriguez directed Tarantino scripted From Dusk Till Dawn. Despite the fact Salma only appears for what amounts to just a few minutes of screen time, she became a major film star in those few moments. Like some sort of God made cross between the doomed Soledad Miranda and Ave Gardner in her prime, Salma Hayek was undeniably special, but throughout the nineties her looks eclipsed her talent as she was all but wasted in one film after another. By the turn of the decade it looked as though Hayek would disappear into the long line of great could have beens…another actress buried by her looks despite the obvious talents she possessed.

I mention my first experiences with both Julie Taymor and Salma Hayek because I believe their one film together, 2002’s exquisite Frida, to be an absolute collaboration…a rare cinematic work where the person in front of the camera has as much claim to authorship as the person behind it. I would go so far as to argue that the true auteur behind Frida is Salma Hayek and not Julie Taymor, which isn’t to diminish Taymor’s direction and vision of the film. Instead I mean it as a tribute to Hayek, who was the one who worked her ass off for much of the late nineties and early part of this decade to get Frida off the page and into the theaters in the first place.

Few modern artists lives seem more fitting for a big screen movie than Frida Kahlo. After all, the Mexican born Kahlo really LIVED a life. Besides being one of the most astonishing talents of the twentieth century her circle of friends, lovers and collaborators included everyone from Diego Rivera to Josephine Baker to Leon Trotsky. Add her accomplishments and partners on to what was truly a difficult existence filled with enough pain and heartache to cover a dozen lives, and the story of Frida Kahlo is one that seemed to demand telling…so why did it take so long to get made?

The attempt to get Frida Kahol’s life to the big screen would itself make an interesting and compulsively entertaining movie. Everyone from Madonna to Meryl Streep were rumored to take her story on in front of the camera, with filmmakers ranging from Robert De Niro to Brian Gibson being attached at one point behind. The film almost got made in the late nineties with talented and sorely undervalued Laura San Giacomo in the title role, but that fell through like all of the other aborted projects had, and by the beginning of the decade it appeared the long awaited Frida Kahlo film would become one of Hollywood’s ultimate back burner projects…until a much determined Salma Hayek stepped in.

Hayek’s work on the film is quite astounding. She acquired the rights to Kahlo’s extraordinary paintings, as she knew that without them the film would fail, and she helped assemble the film’s supporting players, a key to getting the film the financing that finally came from Miramax in the early part of the decade. Big names like Edward Norton, Antonio Banderas, and Ashley Judd signed on for much less their usual fees because of their belief in the fiery Hayek In fact the entire production of Frida can be viewed as a tribute to not only Frida Kahlo but as well to Salma Hayek, an actress refusing to slip into oblivion before she played the role she felt was destined for her.

While it is just Julie Taymor’s second film as a director, the maturity and growth between it and her first film Titus is quite startling. Whereas Titus felt like a visual exercise without a sense of control or reason, Frida is a colorful intelligently designed feature that shows Taymor learning to reign in her particularly distinctive visions in order to satisfy, and not overwhelm, the production she is directing. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Frida, outside of Salma Hayek’s magically moving performance, is the fact that it finally plays out less as a film about the life of Frida Kahlo, and more like a part of one of her life’s works.

The pleasures of Frida are as easy to pinpoint as its faults. It’s a spectacularly beautiful film featuring some of the most distinctive and colorful photography of the decade courtesy of Oscar nominated Rodrigo Prieto. Prieto’s work here is just beyond belief and seeing the film on the big screen was so incredibly vivid that I don’t even know how to go about putting it into words. Another high point of the film is in the moving score by Oscar winner Elliot Goldenthal, which gives a musical life to Kahlo’s most unforgettable and stunning paintings. Oscar nominee Julie Weiss’ beautiful and imaginative costume designs also supply the film with many of its most eye popping moments, causing the picture from beginning to end to function as its own very specific piece of living art.

Despite the work of the incredibly talented cast in front of the camera, with special kudos going to Alfred Molina and Mia Maestro, the unnerving and bewitching Hayek totally controls the film. In one of the great performances of the decade Hayek delivers a brilliant, brave and blistering performance as the trailblazing Kahlo, and she never makes a wrong move from the unforgettable opening close-up of her face, to the final shot where she literally burns into one of the Frida’s paintings. Hayek is overwhelming in the film, and she probably deserved the Oscar in 2003 over the equally stunning Nicole Kidman, who won for her spectacular work in The Hours.

Frida isn’t perfect though and too often it feels like it is just scratching the surface of Frida Kahlo’s life. The biggest mistake the film (and probably mostly Miramax) makes is attempting to squeeze Kahlo’s life down to just two hours. If any film this decade was deserving of a truly epic length then it was Frida, and the work suffers because of the brevity of its running time. Also, while Taymor’s direction is much improved over Titus, there is still the feeling she hasn’t fully come into her own as a filmmaker yet. For all of the bravura set pieces and undeniably artistic brilliance Taymor shows, certain sequences just don’t feel resonate enough and, more often than not, the power behind Frida is in Hayek’s performance, and Kahlo’s art itself, and not in Taymor’s direction. Still, the film is an impressive achievement for Taymor, and she remains an interesting talent to watch.

Despite its faults, I find Frida to be one of the most resonate and beautiful works of the decade. Whether or not Salma Hayek ever gets another part quite suited to her considerable talents remains to be seen, but Frida is an invigorating and intoxicating tribute to her and I am thankful she got the film made. While the film divided critics back in 2002 when it came out, and it continues to do so, I feel that perhaps the biggest question to be asked in regards to its success is does a watching Frida serve as an invitation to explore more of Kahlo’s life and works? I honestly can’t imagine anyone saying no, a fact that alone make Frida a resounding and quite a moving success.

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