The Magazine

Trotsky Lives!

Hollywood does the painter Frida Kahlo and her times.

Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE REAL STAR of "Frida," the much-hyped film biography of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, is not Salma Hayek, the beautiful Arab-Mexican actress who handles the lead role, but Mexico--in all its legendry, folklore, and intensity of color and passion. Mexico has remained in large part untouched by the globalization of architectural dullness, and it provides the film a setting so magnificent it almost overcomes the film's tendentiousness.

So, too, the real subject of "Frida" is not Kahlo as she actually was, but Kahlo as she has become since her death: a global feminist icon. Indeed, one could imagine no more severe indictment of contemporary feminism than the real Kahlo. This woman artist clearly followed the path of her life with complete freedom, yet returned again and again to a male lover, the painter Diego Rivera, who, with some justice, is equated here with King Kong. (Actor Alfred Molina is not as fat as the real Rivera, but, padded up, portrays him credibly.)

But the actual life of Kahlo has been set aside, for what "Frida" is mostly about is the need of the American Left for a passionate myth of the radical past. To find a parallel, you have to go back to Warren Beatty's fictionalization of John Reed's life in "Reds." Just as one could not imagine the Russians making a picture like "Reds" back in 1981, so one cannot imagine a Mexican film about Kahlo looking or sounding anything like this work--and it has been universally panned by Mexicans.

But neither can one imagine such a film being made about any other idol of the American Left. Any takers on an image of Woody Guthrie making love to Salma Hayek, as Leon Trotsky (played by Geoffrey Rush) does in "Frida"? The historical memory of revolutionary Mexico and of the bohemian radicals of the 1930s, from New York to Paris and back, combines conveniently with the tortured biography of the unibrowed heroine to give lefties an epic of their own, at a time in which their ideology, inspiration, enthusiasm, and equilibrium have become exhausted or disoriented.

The cult of Frida Kahlo has ballooned in the past two decades in ways that few could have imagined at the time of her death a half century ago. The surrealist poet and critic André Breton, who did much more than anyone else to establish her reputation, gets short shrift in this film. But Breton was right when, the artist still in her thirties, he deemed Kahlo a more important painter than Rivera--for Rivera's sort of socialist mural painting has disappeared from most of the globe (except in places known for reactionary tastes, like San Francisco, Belfast, and southern Lebanon).

In the past twenty years, Kahlo's work has appeared on everything from cocktail napkins to baseball caps. It's not so much that her paintings are actually in vogue, but that Frida Kahlo had it all in terms of politically-correct victimization: She was a half-Jewish, Hispanic, leftist, bisexual, female artist, who suffered a crippling accident, was oppressed by a phallocratic husband, and made love to a Russian exile. What more could one ask of a culture heroine today?

On the screen, "Frida" submerges historical detail under nostalgia for the heroic Left of generations past. The screenwriting credit to novelist Clancy Sigal is notable: Sigal's 1962 classic "Going Away" was a high-pitched, sentimental lament for the old Commies who had been betrayed by history and left in the dust by consumerist America. (Unfortunately, a lot of people who read and loved Sigal's book were, in turn, betrayed by history--but many of them make do with the consolation of academic tenure, consumerist America's most exalted reward.)

Yet notwithstanding the concessions to faddism--including amateurish and pretentious special effects and a gratuitous lesbian sex scene bringing Kahlo together with a look-alike of American jazz singer Josephine Baker--"Frida" remains worth seeing. The story is presented graphically and vividly, reinforcing its essential connection with the Mexican physical and intellectual environment. In a back-street cantina, Diego Rivera pulls a gun on his rival, the Communist hack David Alfaro Siqueiros (well acted by Antonio Banderas), but he hurls only curses at Nelson Rockefeller, who in 1933 commissioned the famous Rockefeller Center mural and then turned it down the following year.