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A portrait of ‘Frida’ that’s all in the framing

Times Staff Writer

The artist Frida Kahlo was famous for a lot of things -- her glorious paintings, her grotesque pain, her numerous love affairs, even her unruly eyebrows, which hovered above her piercing dark eyes like a bird in flight. The eyebrows, or rather the single formidable eyebrow she pruned into a thick bold line, are what you first notice when you look at many of Kahlo’s self-portraits, especially the less floridly expressive paintings, the ones without the hovering fetuses and the swirling phantasmagoric symbolism. Looking at those majestically aloft eyebrows, you get the sense that even when her body was held hostage by infirmity, as it was for long stretches of her difficult life, Kahlo wanted the world to know that part of her was free.

To play the part of Kahlo in “Frida,” Julie Taymor’s prosaic new film about the artist, the young actress Salma Hayek has put aside her tweezers and daubed on a few prosthetic hairs. Instead of a flying bird, the effect is of a pair of wings that wouldn’t make it through a strong breeze much less the storm that was Kahlo’s life. The resemblance to the artist is cosmetically faithful, as is the case with much of this meticulously mounted, exasperatingly well-behaved film, which ticks off Kahlo’s lifetime milestones with the dutiful precision of a tax accountant. But it fails to get at the ferocity of the artist and her artifice, to get at the core of a woman who painted a self-portrait in which she gives birth to her adult self, as if she were both Zeus and Diana.

Plagued by multiple infirmities that confined her alternately to a wheelchair and to her sickbed, Kahlo spent days, at times years, immobilized with little company other than her reflection. In 1925, at the age of 18, she was involved in a calamitous, near-fatal accident when an electric trolley car plowed into the bus she was riding. Among her injuries were a broken collarbone, two broken ribs and 11 fractures to her right leg; her spinal column was broken in three places in the lower part of her back and her right foot was pulverized. The metal handrail that pierced her pelvis, breaking it in three areas, exited through her vagina, leaving her incapable of carrying a child to term.

The accident -- and some 32 operations and countless surgical appliances she endured in its wake -- seem too much for anyone to bear, but Kahlo bore it, often with wicked humor. It was one of the two defining moments of her life, happening not long after she first met her future husband -- and other defining moment -- Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), painting a mural on the wall of her preparatory school. In the film the two events seem almost mystically connected since shortly after encountering Rivera, Kahlo and her first serious boyfriend, Alejandro (Diego Luna), are seen riding the bus, the air filled with the everyday noise of Mexico City and the young man’s chatter about Hegel and Marx. Frida doesn’t seem to be listening but is instead focusing on the vividly hued bluebird in the possession of one of the other riders and by a sack of gold dust in the hands of another.

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Then the world upends: Bodies sail through the air and Kahlo lands in an exquisitely art-directed tableaux, her nakedness discreetly obscured by torn clothes, her flesh covered with gold dust and blood. It’s a beautiful image -- the moment of impact as an aesthetic revelation -- but what’s missing is the gore, the crucifying rod, the girl’s own animal screams and the absolute nightmare of it all. Kahlo never painted her accident (it wasn’t her aesthetic revelation) but her art was born from her wounds. The power of her paintings, with their washes of blood and anatomical details, in which the artist’s own internal organs are sometimes laid out like so many milagros, is not simply in its beauty but in its terror. Kahlo was, as her biographer Hayden Herrera pointed out, a woman who “lived dying.” Is it any wonder, then, that hers was an art that seduces and repulses in equal measure?

For Kahlo, experience turned into creation, blood into paint, flesh into art. This was her essential core, a molten alloy of genius, pain, lust and contradiction that neither Taymor nor Hayek and any of the six writers who had a hand in the screenplay begin to grasp. It’s impossible to know the reasons why other than all the familiar explanations that accompany films of this type, namely that the horrors of real life don’t translate well onto the screen, where risking the audience’s repulsion is risking the very success of the film It doesn’t help matters that the screenplay is rotten, filled with declarations that would make better chapter titles: Frida to Diego, “You’ve never been my husband”; Diego to Frida, “I’m a beast”; and so on.

Then, too, it may be that Taymor and especially Hayek, who spent years trying to get the movie made, are too in love with their subject and their love has made them overly protective of Kahlo. That, at any rate, is the charitable take. Less charitably -- and it is, unhappily, easy to find fault with this film, not only because it falls short of its mark but because of the way in which it falls short -- “Frida” is galling.

You expect Hollywood to gum up true stories, to soften biography to fit the contours of respectability, but what is the point of blunting a life like Kahlo’s? It isn’t only that the film tempers some of her more discomforting edges (including her unwavering adoration of Stalin), it’s that Taymor is incapable of getting past the flamboyance and layers of peasant skirts. She seems dazzled by Kahlo’s appearance but oblivious to its deeper meaning and to all of the artist’s multivalent, often contradictory identities -- the shut-in and the adventurer, the Mexican-Indian and the European-Mexican, the independent artist and the desperately needy lover.

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Taymor has a flair for color and an eye for sybaritic detail, and she’s enlisted the Quay brothers for one of the film’s spirited animated sequences, but her gift is that of a talented production designer, not of a director (best known for her stage work, her only other film credit is “Titus.”) The live-action sequences have none of the punch of the film’s animations, and none of the human performances are as expressive as the skeletons the Quays use to illustrate Kahlo’s post-accident emergency room drama. Left to their own devices, the film’s actors move through the exotically appointed rooms like suburban revelers at a bohemian costume party, clinking glasses and mouthing platitudes about revolution. It’s incredibly phony, never more so than in scenes featuring the likes of Antonio Banderas as Rivera’s artistic and political rival, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Ashley Judd, playing Italian photographer Tina Modotti in flapper clothes and a baffling Ruskie purr.

For all the table-pounding rhetoric and the coy suggestions of libertinism, these scenes bring to mind one of those old MGM extravaganzas, back when the studio boasted more stars than there are in heaven and Norma Shearer would be trussed up in period drag to play important personages in gently accented English. In this respect, Molina’s Rivera is in some ways the gravest disappointment -- the character is far too tamped down for this talented actor to ignite -- although Hayek fares worse from Taymor’s inattention. The performance is far from a disgrace, but it lacks gravitas and soul, a sense of passionate purpose, a hint of obsession. The best Hayek can do with her lovely face is cloud it with worry, but the face of Frida Kahlo demands anguish. Kahlo’s genius, along with her suffering and her ferocious will to live, turned her into a complex icon but one made of viscera and tears, not vapors or a filmmaker’s vanity.

*

‘Frida’

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MPAA rating: R, for sexuality/nudity and language

Times guidelines: Nudity, adult themes and language throughout, including an upsetting miscarriage.

Salma Hayek...Frida Kahlo

Diego Rivera...Alfred Molina

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Leon Trotsky...Geoffrey Rush

Tina Modotti...Ashley Judd

David Alfaro Siqueiros...Antonio Banderas

Miramax Films presents, in association with Margaret Rose Perenchio, a Ventanarosa Production in association with Lions Gate Films, released by Miramax Films. Director Julie Taymor. Writers Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas. Based on the book by Hayden Herrera. Producers Sarah Green, Salma Hayek, Jay Polstein, Lizz Speed, Nancy Hardin, Lindsay Flickinger and Roberto Sneider. Music Elliot Goldenthal. Director of photography Rodrigo Prieto. Production designer Felipe Fernandez del Paso. Editor Francoise Bonnot. Costume designer Julie Weiss. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle’s Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 477-5581.

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