Frida: A Lush, Sensuous Triumph

The tormented, turbulent and passionate life of legendary painter Frida Kahlo, an artist of unique and bountiful talent-and an icon of suffering who has become known in Mexico as the saint of the afflicted-was too big to fill a single canvas. She suffered for her art and made art out of suffering, merging art and life in autobiographical canvases that mixed Mexican folk art with European surrealism. Hard to capture on film. But Lion King director Julie Taymor, an artist with her own fame for stylish and audacious visuals, has knocked herself out condensing the breathless melodrama of that life into a film of overwhelming artistry, beauty and impact. The result is Frida , the greatest movie about an artist since Vincente Minnelli grafted the psychological turmoil of Vincent Van Gogh onto the screen in Lust for Life .

Frida herself was a piece of work who managed to cram several lifetimes into her 47 years. Already crippled by polio as a child, she survived a near-

fatal trolley accident at 18 which crushed her pelvis and spine, fractured her leg in 11 different places, and left her in a steel corset and permanent agony. (She required more than 30 operations and the eventual amputation of her right leg.) Her two stormy marriages to legendary Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, a fat womanizer who was “the best of friends and the worst of husbands,” her passionate devotion to the Communist Party, her many tempestuous love affairs with men and women (including Leon Trotsky and an illustrious singer who resembles Josephine Baker), her miscarriages and addictions and suspected suicide-it’s all here, chronicled in facts, writings from her diaries, and the more than 200 autobiographical paintings she left behind (repainted from the originals in bold, quirky colors) as illustrations of her torrid life. Ms. Taymor and the real Frida are both nobly served by the feisty, luminous Salma Hayek, who spent six years raising the money for this project and serving as co-producer. Canadian theater director Robert Lepage, who is currently staging a play in London on Kahlo’s life, described her as “a big, vulgar woman with missing teeth who smoked and drank, had affairs … and gobbled up life.” Ms. Hayek is beautiful, flower-like and 5-foot-2, but as she moves with grace and passion through every contrasting emotional chapter in Frida’s unconventional life, she gives a rangy, haunting performance that transforms her into a full-fledged star destined to be remembered in this year’s Oscar nominations.

Belying its $12 million budget, the film is a lush, sensuous triumph with wonderful music, sumptuous cinematography that matches Ms. Hayek’s beauty, and a striking use of puppets, computer animation and collages that come to life, in locations ranging from the colonial city of Puebla and the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan to La Casa Azul, Frida’s famous villa in Coyoacán, named for its azure blue walls. The film begins and ends in that house, with the stench of gangrene already upon her as her first exhibition is being planned in Mexico City. Forbidden by her doctor to leave her bed, Frida is carried through the streets by mariachis in the same four-poster bed where she taught herself to paint lying in a horizontal position. In flashbacks, we see her as a spunky teen, dressing like a boy to scandalize her parents; the horrific accident that left her crippled for years; and the bizarre relationship with Diego that began as fellow comrades fighting capitalism and led to an eternal love affair that brought her more torture than joy. Diego is played by Alfred Molina as a mad, excessive and violent hedonist with lusty appetites for food, fiestas and fornication. (On the morning after their wedding, Frida awoke to find Rivera’s ex-wife cooking his favorite mole sauce in her kitchen. The woman stayed for years!) By all accounts, Frida was a better painter, but in the early stages of their life together, she sublimated her own talent to be his muse and inspiration and play a supplemental role in his career. The jazzy centerpiece of the film is Diego’s invasion of New York-a swinging collage of dancing Stork Club matchbooks, big-band music, movie clips, Art Deco diners and a fantasy sequence in which Frida imagines Diego in the arms of King Kong, hanging from the Empire State Building. When Nelson Rockefeller commissions him to paint the murals at Rockefeller Center, then destroys them with a wrecking ball after Diego refuses to remove Lenin from the exhibit, the painter rants at the corruption of capitalism while Frida seduces the capitalists’ wives. Back in Mexico, where Diego transfers his sexual favors to her sister, Frida offers political asylum to the exiled Trotsky (an unrecognizable Geoffrey Rush), revives his dead dreams and ideals by taking him as a lover, then goes to prison as a murder suspect when he is assassinated. Through it all, her experiences and feelings are reflected in the canvases which have now made her the darling of radical chic in the international art world. Felled by bronchitis, liver disease, alcoholism, drugs and depression, Frida ends the film as she did her life, carried through the streets of Mexico City to her career exhibition full of morphine and tequila. She died in 1954, at 47, leaving behind a controversial legacy. What a character, what a life, what a movie.

Understandably, the team of Taymor and Hayek called on some influential friends to enrich the ambiance. Without exception, the impressive cast is full of vitality and charisma. Roger Rees is superb as her German-Jewish father. Lovely Mia Maestro is Cristina Kahlo, the beloved sister who alienated Frida’s affections by sleeping with Diego herself. Ashley Judd is the alluring feminist photographer Tina Modotti, who dances a flamboyant lesbian tango with Frida in a hot scene destined to generate more than a few fireworks. Antonio Banderas is the gun-wielding fellow artist and revolutionary, David Siqueiros. And Ms. Hayek’s real-life boyfriend Edward Norton, who wrote part of the screenplay without credit, is a convincingly two-faced, buttoned-down Nelson Rockefeller.

Ms. Taymor manages to piece together the salient facts of a life charged by sex, politics and art with coherence and a strong allegiance to narrative, but at the same time she rubs the material with a brilliant patina of her own. Straightforward biography is superimposed with visuals, as the paintings of Kahlo and her husband Diego appear and dissolve. Kahlo devoted herself to the Buddhist theory that pain can produce beauty (“I took my tears and turned them into paintings,” she declared in her diaries), and Ms. Taymor knows the tricks of perspective to take all of these elements closer to Frida’s state of mind, in which art and life merge cinematically. The transition from Frida’s psychological pain to the surrealism with which her conscience finds its way to her canvases is daring but not pretentious, and there is always something amazing and luscious to look at. I have seen it twice, and I found awesome discoveries both times. I have heard this movie called everything from a masterpiece to pure kitsch-which would probably have amused the wicked, fun-loving Frida immensely. Julie Taymor’s vision of Frida Kahlo’s life and art is as prankish as its subject-an artful echo of a lyrical, sensual, voyeuristic, anarchic slapstick tragedy.

Women’s Desire

In Roger Dodger , a deft, cutting-edge comedy about an arrogant bachelor who uses women like dental floss until his strategies of seduction backfire and bust him in the teeth with his own fist, the terrific and bewilderingly underrated Campbell Scott gives a star performance that is nothing short of mesmerizing. Written and directed by a witty, observant newcomer named Dylan Kidd, the film centers on the neurotic fox trot performed nightly by New York’s most sophisticated cads in their war with the opposite sex to see who comes out of the trenches with the least number of scuffs on their combat boots. You see cynical Casanovas like Roger Swanson every week on Sex and the City , breaking hearts but going home alone to preserve their love affair with themselves on the Bowflex machine. Roger is a handsome, rude, blunt, brilliant, obnoxious, conceited and lethally suave advertising-agency copywriter with no respect for women, who thinks he can con his way into any bed in Manhattan. He is also a know-it-all with an absolute genius for verbal diarrhea, whose idea of foreplay is a dissertation on every subject from human cells, gene patterns and Darwinian theories of evolution, to a florid analysis of the man who discovered the clitoris. (“At first, he thought it was India.”) Then, in one night, his complacent world of cool talk and casual sex is shaken when he is (1) outsmarted and dumped by a stylish girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) who is tired of being manipulated (and who is also his boss); and (2) invaded by his horny 16-year-old nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), who has come to town to enlist the aid of Uncle Roger in a mission to lose his virginity. By the time dawn slices through their hangovers, the uncle is not so smug, the nephew is not so innocent, and neither of them will ever be the same again.

Rising to the challenge, Uncle Roger (who also needs to bolster his own wounded ego) condescendingly agrees to teach the kid all the angles in an all-night crash course on how to pick up women, but the two foxy tomatoes he hits on in a swinging-singles bar (Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley) wreck his foolproof strategy at every thrust, while the naïve Nick wins them both over just by being himself. The mood darkens faster than the desperation on Roger’s face as the film moves to a stuffy penthouse party where he makes a boorish fool of himself, then to a sordid after-hours brothel where the roles of student and mentor take a grim detour, with dangerous consequences. The movie asks a lot of questions about what women really want, and makes the point that men still have a lot of growing up to do, regardless of their age.

The women are tough and vulnerable, the kid is lost but grounded, and Mr. Scott manages to show the human frailty behind the mask of conceit, winning sympathy even when he is most irritating. The understated direction is admirable, but if I have one objection, it’s the overuse of annoying, claustrophobic closeups that reveal every pore without giving the viewer the benefit of a safe analytical distance. Even for a film on an indie-prod budget, there was surely enough money for the camera to film the occasional long shot. I liked Mr. Kidd’s script, but it’s extremely talky-and while the talk is sharp, it can be wearing. Still, Roger Dodger knows where it’s been and where it’s heading, refusing to settle for pat resolutions even in the epilogue. With his integrity and honesty, Nick turns out to be twice the man his uncle is, yet when the camera follows him back to school, there is evidence that the serpent’s egg Uncle Roger laid in Manhattan is about to hatch a new reptile.