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Queen of Pain

Julie Taymor and Salma Hayek paint a spectacular portrait of Frida Kahlo.

With Frida -- the story of profoundly passionate and uncompromising Mexican-Jewish 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 crew is made up entirely of crackerjacks, and, in the title role, Salma Hayek is several notches above Oscar-worthy (the envelope is already sealed). An hour shorter but every bit as powerful as Judgment at Nuremberg, Gandhi or Malcolm X, Frida is an epic experience that will reverberate around the world.

That said, to be quite honest and not at all cynical, I've always appraised much of Kahlo's work as veering into emotional pornography of the basest type, commonly transferred to postcards that are stuck on the refrigerator doors of assorted trauma-mamas. It's quite useful as a psychological warning, and I like the monkeys, but the constant grotesqueries grow tiresome. Loving the film after going in with this opinion indicates just how well Taymor's movie works; it generously allows the viewer to feel Kahlo's work through the prism of her immensely challenging context, all the while dodging the strictures of a staid biopic or mere celebration (the artist frequently comes across as nuts). It's masterful work, and Taymor's obviously very proud of it, as her directorial credit hovers above the image of a strutting peacock.

When we first meet Frida (convincingly portrayed by Hayek throughout, although she wimped out on the mustache) as an adolescent, the girl's already a feral hellcat, riding her boyfriend Alejandro (Diego Luna) within spitting distance of her mother, Mathilde (Patricia Reyes Spíndola), and sister, Cristina (Mía Maestro). In short order, while she jovially dresses in drag -- no subtle foreshadowing here -- 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, most likely to inherit that other actorly Oscar envelope).

Oscar-bound? Alfred Molina and Salma Hayek in Frida.
Oscar-bound? Alfred Molina and Salma Hayek in Frida.

Then comes the accident, which is already legendary to Kahlo's fans, yet shan't be revealed here out of sensitivity to neophytes (you're on your own with the trailers). Let's just say that 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.

And what a woman. Obviously, Frida comes alive through her painting, but before anyone can mumble "female Van Gogh," Taymor takes Kahlo's experience to a mythic, universal level. The transition begins during young Kahlo's coma, filled with macabre skeletal imagery from the brink of madness (or possibly The Nightmare Before Christmas), and it carries on through the screenplay's beautiful circular structure, wherein we end where we began, with Frida on her deathbed, comfortable in her pain and her grand pursuits of pleasure. For us, those pleasures include terrific forays into animation and composition, plus hot cameos from Ashley Judd (using that sleepy eye to alluring effect), Antonio Banderas (genuinely funny), Saffron Burrows and others.

The bulk of the movie showcases some of the best film direction this year. The work of Hayek, Molina and the magnificent Valeria Golino forms a powerful parallel to the equally brilliant but far more tragic Auto Focus, by Paul Schrader, which is also, intriguingly, a tale of art, lust, sex-madness and addiction. (The year's best double feature; bring a date!) Young-adult Kahlo turns to Rivera for art mentorship, and soon the two marry (the "girl with cojones" meets the "man with melones"), setting up some fascinating exchanges with Golino, as Rivera's previous wife, Lupe Marín. (Another envelope, please, for Best Supporting Actress.) The romance of Frida and Diego is a remarkable (and remarkably sexy) study of sexual politics.

The film's regular politics are equally engrossing, as communist Rivera runs counter to conservative expectations while painting a mural in New York for Nelson Rockefeller (a very game Edward Norton). Global ideological chaos continues when Rivera and Kahlo, back in Mexico, host Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush, finally not grating, but the fornication could have been implied) and his wife, Natalia (Margarita Sanz), at their home; Kahlo's sensual intervention leads, indirectly, to Trotsky's doom. But despite its constant dips into darkness, this is a film of light, of life, and through Taymor's telling of Kahlo's story, we emerge focusing not on pain, but on our vast and endlessly colorful potential. Brava.

 
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