Film Review : Frida


23rd December, 2020

Written by SP

Frida Kahlo’s works have defied labels and the baggage that comes with them. Her life was riddled with medical problems: suffering from polio as a child, meeting with a bus accident at the age of eighteen and then having chronic uterine pain, gangrene of the foot, an amputation, and numerous miscarriages. She turned her struggles into art: taking inspiration from both surrealism and Mexican folk art to create unique pieces tackling identity, gender, class, society, as well as representing her chronic physical pain.

The biopic Frida, based on her life, does have its standout moments with some scenes shot subjectively, in an avante-garde style (a nod not just to Frida’s art but also her perception of the world).

"They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn't. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."

Frida’s art, in the veins of the subjectivism of Munch, showed her own reality as she experienced it. In this way, it may have been inspired by surrealism, but was not surrealist art.

The scene of the life-changing bus accident is in an agonizing slow-motion, with the final shot of Frida after the accident, covered in gold-dust and blood: a powerful image.

A small miss-able stand-out moment in the film is when a photographer takes a photo of Frida without warning or permission: her face contorts into a millisecond of annoyance, before the shot cuts to the next scene. This may seem surprising at first glance, because Frida was “photographed with a regularity more of a movie star than an artist”. However, the context of her art and the photographs that she did pose for makes this moment clearer. The cultivation of her self-image was important to Frida, hence her famous subjective self-portraits. Her portraits and photographs were her presentation of herself to the world. To have someone else take that presentation, and therefore her subjective glance, away from her annoyed her.

There are many scenes in the film crafted achingly to portray her personal connection with her art, which are the best moments of the film.

"They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn't. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."

I was a fan of Frida Kahlo’s art before I watched the film, and was aware of Salma Hayek’s struggles during production. As such, I was rooting for this film. And my opinion of the film should take nothing away either from Salma Hayek’s courage during the film, or from Frida’s artistic greatness.

However, as much as I wanted to like this film, it was a shallow biopic that butchered its subject by never venturing into what really made Frida.

Frida’s lifelong romance with Mexican painter Diego Rivera was both an inspiration and a cause of great suffering for her. They were in an open relationship, and were rumoured to have shared lovers between them. Frida, like Diego, was heavily influenced by Marxist and feminist thought (and even had a brief affair with Leon Trotsky).

However, the film goes overboard with the screen-time devoted to Diego Rivera. For a film about Frida, it could have very well been titled Frida and Diego, or even Diego and Frida, as many scenes are about how supposedly irresistible Diego’s charm is to women, and Frida’s reactions to Diego’s antics. Diego is portrayed as an all-pervading entity, with Frida struggling to cope with it. A better use of the time could have been made in sketching out Frida’s motivations to paint. In the end of the film, we are left with what is basically a slideshow of scenes about the important moments in Frida’s life.

More than half the conversations between the literal protagonist, Frida, and the other women in her life, are simply about Diego and his charm. It is telling how poorly the scenes are written when half the scenes in the film fail the Bechdel test? (the test is passed if two women talk about something other than a man)

One would think that in a film about Frida Kahlo, the legendary Marxist-surrealist painter, her socialist ideals would be showcased amply. She mentions Marxism once in the film, and that’s just a passing comment to a schoolmate.

This is the real Frida’s thoughts on revolution: “I must struggle with all my strength to ensure that the little positive that my health allows me to do also benefits the Revolution, the only real reason to live.”

The only thing ‘showcased amply’ are gratuitous sex scenes. I wonder how much of this was a direct influence of the infamous Harvey Weinstein, who was a producer on the film.

The real Frida had rebelled against conventional standards of beauty by painting herself with her trademark unibrow, once being quoted as saying that she believed the most beautiful part of the body is the mind, but of her face, she liked her eyebrows best.

Ironically, Harvey Weinstein tried to have Hayek remove the unibrow in her depiction of Frida, as he thought audiences wouldn’t want to see Hayek appearing unattractive. He further told Hayek that she wasn’t a good actor, and the only quality she had was her attractiveness. One can only imagine how warped this perspective would have been if Weinstein had been allowed to have his way.

There is a sex scene in particular which has an insidious story behind it: featuring Salma Hayek with another woman.

The film was Hayek’s dream project. She personally cast actors, and met with many challenges while trying to ensure production of the film, including Weinstein’s shark-attacks. Hayek’s performance comes across often as merging both Frida’s struggle, and Hayek’s own personal struggle.

When the harassment allegations against Weinstein started surfacing, Salma Hayek too shared her experience, quoting, "For years, he was my monster."

Salma Hayek alleged that Weinstein had not only threatened to shut down production of her dream project if she did not grant him sexual favours, but had also forced her to put the gratuitous sex scene.

Hayek fought back through legal means to ensure the production of the film continued, overcoming obstacle after obstacle. She credited a “phalanx of angels” with helping her in her fight, including the notoriously disagreeable Edward Norton, who rewrote the whole script without credit, as well as the director of the film, Julie Taymor.

When it came to the sex scene, however, Weinstein would not budge. Hayek had to bow down to his demand, and had to subject herself to the humiliating scene. She stated that filming the scene had caused her emotional stress, and that she had to take a tranquilizer while filming it.

"It was not because I would be naked with another woman. It was because I would be naked with her for Harvey Weinstein.”

Although the film is made more poignant by the knowledge of Salma Hayek’s fight against harassment, the film’s script ultimately does not do justice to the incredible figure that was Frida Kahlo, and the blame for it goes mostly on the lacklustre script.

Nonetheless, Hayek’s performance as Frida is commendable.

Salma Hayek’s horrifying ordeal is a chilling reminder that the world is not equal, and people claiming it to be so reek of privilege. Even someone as famed and independent as Salma Hayek could have their agency taken away in an instant by inherent power structures in patriarchy.

In such a world, especially now when sentiment against feminism is so high, artists like Salma Hayek and Frida Kahlo remind us that no one will hand equality to us. Though the odds were stacked against them, their rebellious strength offers us hope.