Frail, fierce Frida

Charting the highs and lows of the maverick artist’s life

In her lifetime, Frida Kahlo often lurked in history’s shadows, dwarfed by the wide swath cut by her celebrated husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

Today Kahlo has been resuscitated as a feminist icon, the Charlie girl of the ’30s and ’40s who had, as husband Rivera put it, “cojones,” sexually pursuing men and women with equal vigor and defying the petty pretensions of her husband’s art world.

Translating Kahlo’s story to the screen therefore carries with it an inherently feminist spirit of bringing a neglected artist to the forefront, a project director Julie Taymor is able to realize despite her film’s conventional construction.

Taymor, who won a Tony award for The Lion King in 1998, makes Frida the kind of colorful, tempestuous rendition of Kahlo’s life audiences might expect from a filmed biography. Graced with a vital, compelling performance from Salma Hayek, Frida’s frustrations and heartbreaks are treated as equally relevant as her artwork, which often depicted those very demons in remarkable and disturbing self-portraits.

Alfred Molina as Rivera — is believably multidimensional as a man who cried his wife’s talents to the rooftops, but broke her heart with his roving eye and demeaned her as a woman with his serial infidelity.

While Marxist housewife Frida patiently delivers meals to Rivera’s studio and lends an ear to his troubles, Rivera sleeps with models, socialites, prostitutes, even Kahlo’s sister. Though Kahlo’s life in Frida is reduced to the standard romantic arc of a woman defined by her great love, Hayek manages to dignify Kahlo. With her tiny frame, luminous eyes, peppery attitude and snappish wit, Hayek brings a fascinating historical figure to life, turning her into a human being in the process.

“I like a girl with cojones,” Rivera jokes with a mix of respect and titillation soon after meeting Kahlo. And Frida conforms to that view of Kahlo’s ballsy defiance, treating audiences to the liberating spectacle of a woman brimming with rage, sexual bravado and strong opinions.

Though it glances over the polio that constituted the first assault on Kahlo’s body, Taymor’s film makes much of the life-altering bus accident the artist suffered as a teenager and whose ravages on her body defined her entire life. Confined to bed for more than a year, Frida learns to paint, decorating her chrysalis-like body casts with butterflies to underline her emergent artistic transformation.

Rivera painted respected murals that glorified the working classes, Frida proclaims. But it was Kahlo’s fiercely proud Mexican heritage and respect for its traditions that allowed her to channel into her work the morbidity and sentiment of Mexican culture and her own rage at her pain-racked and infertile body. While Diego spouts esoteric opinions in Frida about the death of “bourgeois” easel painting, Kahlo — Taymor suggests — made real life, not political abstractions, her master work. Though she was often grouped stylistically along with the Surrealists, Kahlo protested. “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality,” which included among other things miscarriage, cancer, infertility and infidelity.

Attempting to convey the morbid mysticism and wit of the Mexican culture that infused Kahlo’s work, Taymor includes a Brothers Quay-animated segment using Day of the Dead skeletons to express Frida’s nightmarish recovery from that devastating bus accident. In other stylized moments, Taymor melds real moments in Kahlo’s life with her canvases to show the collision of self and art in her work. Those moments of fantasy are a welcome breather from the standard bio-picture progression of a film that is compelled to touch upon the famous milestones of Kahlo’s life.

But Taymor uses such delirious experimentation with a strange sense of caution and in a highly orderly way that suggests the songs in an otherwise naturalistic musical. The director never allows her clearly imaginative sensibility to roam around the film in a way that might allow her to escape the riggings of her theatrical education and truly exploit the fantastical possibilities of the film medium.

To its credit, Frida conveys the complexity that has made Kahlo such a fascinating feminist icon — both the sense of despair and horror in Kahlo’s life, but also an impish, anarchical spirit and piquant humor. The strangest of birds — a film about a Communist, bisexual, hirsute, maverick artist aimed squarely at a mainstream audience — Frida may, in fact, turn out to be more radical than it first appears.