She wore masculine suits in family photographs, outdrank every man at the table and her facial hair has become just as famous as her art. Frida Kahlo is a Mexican icon, embodying great suffering and joie de vivre alike, serving as an example for Mexico’s vibrant bohème in the 1930’s. In her 2002 biopic, director Julie Taymor portrays the life of the artist in bright colours and bittersweet, surreal images.
At the beginning of the film, Frida (Salma Hayek) is a teenager, playful and insolent. Together with her friends she spies on the artist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) who is casually painting a mural in the unversity’s auditorium while just as casually cheating on his wife – a fun, juicy anecdote back then, Frida’s own painful experience just a few years later. The opening scene is telling. “Frida” is not only a film about Frida Kahlo, but just as much about her train wreck of a relationship to Diego Rivera – Mexico’s most eccentric, most charming, most famous and certainly fattest casanova. A relationship which she later describes as the worst accident of her life – followed by an actual road accident when she is 18. Kahlo is almost killed, an iron pole pierces her guts; the end to a possibly healthy life, the start of her carreer as a painter.
The body is in many ways the central element of the film. There is Frida’s permanent impairment, resulting in her inability to bear children, and her constant physical pain. This kind of pain is just augmented by the emotional struggle caused by her husband Diego who states to be “physiologically incapable of being faithful” – while proposing to Frida. She tolerates his escapades resistingly, flirting just as hard on parties, leaping into various affairs with men and women alike. A young beauty’s statement while having breakfast with Frida in a bistro sums the situation up: “I’d never thought I’d say this, but you were even better than your husband.” Her disability, his exorbitance with respect to food and women alike – the protagonist’s bodies turn their vulnerability inside out, exposing an uncomfortable intimacy.
This intimate interplay between the inside and the outside becomes almost unbearable when Frida suffers a miscarriage and still insists to see the fetus. Kahlo, lying in a hospital bed once more, paints the remains of her child as floating above her, still attached through the umbilical cord – a link between life and death, womanhood and inability, showing an eerie resemblance to the intraveneous accesses in her wrists.
The fact that her life and her art are intertwined so tightly is reflected in the film. Frida’s paintings smoothly turn into scenes staged by real actors, accentuated by fast, vivid music. The film stays close to the facts, even the extras in the trolley-bus accident look precisely like in Kahlo’s painting “El Autobús”. The Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek had petitioned for the role for years, interviewed Frida Kahlo’s family and even took painting lessons to get closer to Kahlo’s style.
“Frida” is a fast-paced and intense film, questioning concepts like loyalty, marriage, maternity and gender roles alike. It also shows how much personal development depends on the context a person is living in. Frida was lucky to have a father like Guillermo Kahlo, supporting her ambitions and lovingly ridiculing her eccentricities. In spite of all the horror and all the pain she goes through, like the atrocious scene in which Rivera has sex with her sister, there are scenes of triumph. Scenes that make clear why Frida Kahlo is considered a feminist icon. She dares to speak up, to take up space that is usually firmly occupied by men. This is shown perfectly when Diego and Frida attend a party. When Diego and some other men fight over political issue, a beautiful young woman tries to deescalate the situation by putting a bottle of liquor on the table, stating: “Whoever takes the biggest slug may dance with me.” Men are taking turns, Diego looks like the proclaimed winner – until Frida takes the bottle and the woman to the dancefloor. It is a sensual, sexy scene, brimming with omnipresent surprise and satisfaction.
One of Frida Kahlo’s most famous paintings is “Viva la Vida”, a vibrant still-life of ripe watermelons, painted shortly before her early death at 47. “Frida” shows a woman messed up by and addicted to life. It shows an artist who rather takes the risk of being severly hurt than to keep her inner life to herself. “Frida” makes you fall in love and fall for the overflowing joy just to be devastated in the next moment.