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Frida Review: Documentary on Mexican painter stifled by empty stylised leaps

Audacious choices don’t pay off in this unnecessarily over-designed biopic

2/5rating
Frida Review: Documentary on Mexican painter stifled by empty stylised leaps

Last Updated: 10.02 AM, Mar 17, 2024

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Story: The film is an exploration of the acclaimed Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo’s life and times, told through an assemblage of archival footage, letters, diary entries, animation and artwork.

Review: When we think of Frida Kahlo, the earliest impression that comes up is of her extraordinary art certainly but also an incredibly radical spirit; a woman who knew no boundaries and consistently pushed the rules by which a life can be led.

A pulsating thrill and vitality of colour constantly animates the film. Daubs of colour streak into the black-and-white archival photographs and videos. Kahlo’s iconic paintings are reanimated into life, receiving a jolt of movement and motley abstract additions. The stylistic choice is initially striking but quickly starts to feel distracting and frankly unnecessary as her work anyway is rich in vigour and profound grief. All her life, Kahlo was plagued by immense physical pain, a consequence of a severe accident. She poured that pain and other kinds of anguish into her art. As a result, Sofia Ines Cazares and Renata Galindo’s animation, despite being intermittently electric, comes off as a superfluous interruption instead of adding another livelier layer.

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There’s a nagging coyness in the way the film skirts the array of romances Kahlo had. Her lovers, men and women, talk of her with adoration and reverence, positioning her as a sort of untamed miracle. However, the obvious temerity with which Kahlo steered her life isn’t reflected in Gutierrez’s retelling which tends to give an obligatory mention at most and quickly move on. While we may understand that this decision is to prevent an overly intrusive gaze, it baffles nevertheless because her sexual life stubbornly remains a distant mystery, rendering her an object of intrigue instead of someone who could earn our emotional investment.

In fact, Gutierrez does highlight Kahlo’s commitment to the sensuous and many pleasures of life as frequently as she can but critically sidesteps any further exploration. Even if the romances get a throwaway notice, the threads of Kahlo’s perspective toward her art and honing a sense of politics, both of which became heavily intertwined in her case, unforgivably get the short shrift. While the voiceover by Fernanda Echevarria Del Rivero makes hissing, snide remarks about the elite circles within which Kahlo could never quite belong, Kahlo’s entrenched communist thought and philosophy registers merely as a point of admiration, not as something that she was so committed to. When she sees the poverty and abominable working-class conditions in New York, she is swept with revulsion and rage. She longs to return to Mexico but is compelled to stay on for her husband’s work assignment. Her life is permeated with the ethos of the Revolution, another aspect that only bobs by.

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Although she is quite dissimilar to the man she eventually marries at eighteen, the much older painter Diego Riviera, they are bound by a devotion to beauty. Their pairing was so peculiar they were called the ‘elephant and the dove’. For much of her frail, short life, the birdlike Kahlo shadowed Riviera, accompanying him to events. Only much later does she come into her own as an artist who also feels the pressing need to live off her work.

Kahlo led a vibrant life without a hint of an apology. She was deeply aware of her charisma and charm. She had the boldness to leave anyone hanging if the person no longer suited her fancy, even if it was someone like Trotsky. She projected a head-turning confidence and was bursting with unbridled desires. But she was also battling inner demons of her own, insecurities, hurt, and betrayal. In approaching the psychological and emotional, Gutierrez’s film has a more unsure footing. The choice of a conventional, linear structure also strikes jarring, paradoxical notes when placed against her disruptive spirit.

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Kahlo’s life obviously has enough material to sustain a series of its own. Gutierrez opts to go economical even within the feature format, with the film clocking in at just about eighty-four minutes. While nobody minds concision, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the film rushes through the many phases of her life a tad too swiftly. We never get the time to properly linger with the weight of a disappointment that brought a colossal shift in her life.

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Verdict: Inexcusably, Frida never allows us to observe and gauge how the painter grows and develops her attitude to art. All we are told is she paints because she needs to. It is the fatal flaw of Carla Gutierrez’s film that we don’t encounter the root of that fundamental driving compulsion beyond the construct of pain.

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