The Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is probably best known for her eyebrows (or unibrow), which feature prominently in her many self-portraits. During her life, her work was overshadowed by her famous husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, and after her death in 1954, her own art languished in semi-obscurity until the 1980s. Her story has rarely shown up on film, and this 2002 movie, Frida, starring Salma Hayek, attempts to combine biography with a touch of magical realism, making Kahlo’s works come to life much as she turned her life into her art. (A 1983 biographical film, Frida, naturaleza viva, was produced in Mexico, but is difficult to find.)
The movie starts with Frida as a schoolgirl, around age 18, right around the 1925 bus accident that nearly killed her. Before the accident, she’s lively and mischievous, carrying on a lusty affair with a classmate, Alec. But the accident breaks Frida’s legs and a few ribs, dislodges several vertebrae, and cracks her pelvis. After a month in the hospital, she’s taken home in a full-body cast. Immobilized, she draws on her cast and is given an easel to paint from her bed. This is such a crucial episode in Frida’s life, and the film treats it just right — neither glossing over this time nor patronizing the viewer by making too much of it. Hayek is noticeably older than Frida would have been at this period, but other than that minor nitpick, she gives an excellent, nuanced performance of a young woman’s frustration and adaption to her circumstances, feeling trapped and making the best of it, but without a cliched Pollyanna attitude. There’s a dark humor in Hayek’s attitude that matches Kahlo’s art.
As Frida recovers from the enforced bed rest, she meets Diego Rivera and becomes involved with Mexico’s Communist Party (a little backwards from real life, but close enough). Rivera and Kahlo have a passionately stormy relationship from the start, as he’s incapable of monogamy and she wavers between obsession with Diego and affairs of her own with various men and women. Their bohemian life leads them to America for Rivera’s mural commissions and brings Soviet politician Leon Trotsky to their home (and Frida’s bed). Most of the events in the film are accurately depicted from Kahlo’s biography, with quotes from her letters even used in the dialog — such as her complaints about shallow New York capitalists and the petty Parisian arts scene. However, I don’t know where the historical basis for the affair between Frida and Josephine Baker comes from. The two met in Paris, that is true, and Frida’s diary and letters refer to intimacies with women such as American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio, and French painter Jacqueline Lamba, but not Baker. Maybe someone confused Lamba (wife of surrealist poet André Breton) with Baker?
The film’s digressions from reality in plot are minimal, especially for a Hollywood biopic. Events are compressed, of course, and only highlights are covered, but the essentials are there and not in a rushed fashion. Where the movie goes off into fantasy is recreating Frida Kahlo’s paintings, and this mostly works well, although I almost wish there was more of the effect to both get deeper inside Frida’s head and so that the few times a painting comes to life, it’s not weirdly surprising. The most powerful scenes are of Frida painting her miscarriage in the U.S. (Henry Ford Hospital, 1932) and when she cuts her hair after Diego’s affair with her sister (Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940). Director Julie Taymor said of filming this second scene:
…that particular shot which is Salma Hayek in front of the mirror, completely painted. We painted her face. We painted her clothing. We forced perspective. When you talk about the theater, that is a forced perspective set. There’s nothing computer generated in this at all. This is almost totally theatrical. You use motion control, which means your camera moves once with the real Salma here, then you do the same action again with there, and you can then put them together. But it’s so shocking to people because it looks like a two dimensional painting for a moment, and then you feel that it’s a human being coming alive.
I’m glad this movie was made right before everything become relentlessly digital because the analog technology gives a more realistic, organic feeling to scenes where Kahlo’s paintings come to life. They might be too cartoony if they were computer generated.
Costuming a 20th-century biopic usually means there’s a ton of photographic evidence to rely on, and this film had photos of Frida Kahlo from her whole life to use. Now, Kahlo was not unattractive, but she was no Salma Hayek, who is a complete bombshell, very curvy and classically sexy. Kahlo had untreated polio as child, which stunted one of her legs, and between that and the bus accident and the over 30 surgeries she endured during her lifetime, she was always thin and frail. Plus, she had the trademark unibrow and mustache. Or, as she described herself: “Of my face I like the eyebrows and eyes. Aside from that I like nothing. My head is too small. My breasts and genitals are average. Of the opposite sex, I have the moustache and in general the face.” It’s said that she always carefully groomed her mustache and unibrow with a little comb. So the hair and makeup department for the film Frida did an excellent job on Hayek adding the facial hair and downplaying her face so she looked plain but not ugly and better resembled Kahlo. Artists John E. Jackson and Beatrice De Alba even won the Best Makeup Oscar that year for their work on Frida. Oscar-nominated costume designer Julie Weiss might have had a little bit easier job with the clothing since Kahlo’s colorful indigenous Mexican skirts and loose blouses are well documented. It’s a distinct contrast with the 1920s-1930s clothing on the rest of the cast, especially the women’s clothing on Frida’s sister and Diego’s first wife, who wear light embroidered shift dresses in pastel colors.
Kahlo also does a bit of cross-dressing in the film, which reflects what photos and personal accounts recall. Frida’s father, a professional photographer, took a couple pictures of her in men’s suits when she was young.
And later in life, when she was angry about one of Diego’s affairs, she sometimes cut her hair short in a more masculine fashion. The painting (Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940), referenced by Taymor above, is from one of these periods, showing Frida with short hair and wearing a men’s suit. This reflects what art historian Victor Zamudio Taylor says about Kahlo as an artist and an icon:
Frida Kahlo crosses many boundaries. Frida Kahlo crosses boundaries of class, Frida Kahlo crosses boundaries of gender. She even crosses boundaries between the urban and the rural life. So when she wears regional popular Mexican attire, she’s literally cross-dressing in a cultural manner, and masquerading as well as flaunting the fact that she has the choice to do this, and she’s very, she’s very self-conscious about it. She makes it a point. She underlines it. She celebrates that act, and through that she celebrates herself.
And overall, that’s what this movie gets right. Frida is not a biopic that turns her story into just a romance or just about her art or even just a series of life events. It’s not perfect, but this is a pretty darn good example of what a biopic should be, especially one of an interesting female artist.