AS THE CORPSE OF FRIDA KAHLO ENTERED A crematorium furnace in July of 1954, flaming hot air lifted the slender body upright, igniting its hair into a halo of fire. To any observer, this final image of Frida, framed by the yawning mouth of the furnace, must have seemed like the consummating self-portrait of her career. Consumed by physical and emotional pain throughout her life, Frida lifted her agonies onto canvas, writing in her journal that "my painting carries with it the message of pain." And though she did not paint halos in her portraits, Frida sometimes placed on her canvases banderoles, ribbons of writing similar to those that marked the sacred images, or retablos, adorning Mexican churches. Like her body in the crematorium, Frida's body of work has been lifted almost to sacred status by the heat of her pain.
This makes post-crematorium portraits of Frida—like the recent film Frida—difficult to execute. How does one capture both the degradation and the redemption of Frida's pain? The film, based upon Hayden Herrera's 1983 biography, presents numerous agonizing images of Frida: the eighteen-year-old girl impaled by a metal handrail from a streetcar accident, the mother-manquee lying in blood-soaked bed linens after one of her many miscarriages, the betrayed wife witnessing her husband in flagrante delicto with her own sister, the middle-aged woman contemptuously regarding the artificial limb that must serve as her leg. But surrounding these graphic depictions—like a halo of firey hair— are scenes of such visual beauty, executed in such gorgeously intense colors, that the pain evaporates in the heat of visual pleasure.
Many reviewers, in fact, say that Frida focuses too exclusively on the halo, failing to inspect the dirty ashes beneath the flames. They are especially critical of the film's portrayal of Diego Rivera, Frida's husband, who, though a great admirer and encourager of her art, was an avid womanizer, violently and hypocritically outraged by Frida's heterosexual (but not her lesbian) affairs. The film's Diego, however, played by the charming Alfred Molina, is merely a gruff teddy-bear whom women—including Frida—can't resist. Furthermore, though the film convincingly depicts Frida's anger when she learns of Diego's liaisons, we are never quite convinced of the physical pain which tortured Frida throughout life, leading to numerous back braces and spinal operations. At one point in the film we see her energetically climb a Teotihuacan pyramid with Leon Trotsky (Geoffry Rush), telling him at the top that she's in constant pain. This comes as a surprise to us, because the beautiful Salma Hayek who plays Frida seems to act pain only when the circumstances make it obvious: while she's in a body cast, during a spinal adjustment, after the miscarriage. It is no wonder that reviewers have indicted the film for its lack of "realism."
PERHAPS, HOWEVER, THEY HAVE SEEN THE WRONG film. Expecting a biopic, they got, instead, art. Frida Kahlo type of art. Art that transubstantiates the body and blood of biographical experience into visually consumable symbols.
Take, for example, the pyramid climb. While the ascent with Trotsky may be historical, realistic portrayal of Frida's pain might not matter as much to the filmmakers as the symbolism of an edifice associated with sacrifice: a place where Aztec priests made offerings of hearts torn from living victims. As the filmmakers were quite aware, several of Frida's self-portraits, including one represented in the film, display bloody hearts hovering or lying beside her body—symbolizing her pain, her sacrifices for love. Indeed, Director Julie Taymor and co-producer Salma Hayek quite self-consciously align their film with the symbolism of Frida's art rather than with the ostensible "realism" (always a problematic term) of conventional biopics. Several times the representation of a Kahlo painting fills the entire mise-en-scene, making the movie screen look like a huge framed canvas until the painted people slowly dissolve into the actors portraying them. Other times, in consonance with the surrealism evident in Frida's art (causing Surrealist poet Andre Breton to align her with the Surrealist Movement), bizarre scenes are interpolated into the film, as when tawdry "Day of the Dead" skeletons taunt Frida during her post-accident delirium. Later, to encapsulate the first visit Frida and Diego make to New York City, the film presents a dream-like collage of hand-drawn New York edifices overlaid with cutout photographs of the painters bouncing their way among various incongruous sites.
THOUGH IT'S HARD NOT TO THINK OF SURREALISM when looking at many Kahlo paintings, Frida demurred, saying, "People thought I was a Surrealist. That's not right. I have never painted dreams. What I represented was my own reality." It is this "reality" which Taynor and Hayek have attempted to capture—perhaps explaining the gentle brushstrokes with which they paint Diego. Frida herself painted her husband gently, several times drawing Diego's face onto the forehead of her self-portrait, as though to indicate he was never off her mind— despite his affairs and tantrums. Several years after their divorce and remarriage in 1940, Frida wrote a poem addressing him as "Diego my friend / Diego my mother / Diego my father / Diego my son / Diego = I =," reminding us of Catherine Earnshaw's famous line from Wuthering Heights: "I am Heathcliff."
How, then, does a film represent Frida's "reality" of Diego? There's no question that he had "despicable" qualities, as Diego himself admitted: "When I loved a woman, I wanted to hurt her the more I loved her; Frida was the most evident victim of this despicable character trait of mine." It is no wonder that she once reported, in a gnomic statement included in the film, "I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down. . . .The other accident is Diego."
The film portrays these accidents with as much symbolism as a Kahlo painting. Right before the streetcar scene, we see Frida looking up in awe at a Diego Rivera fresco in the Museo de San Ildefonso, Mexico City. A low-angle lens makes it seem as though Frida's body is encompassed by Rivera's depiction of God, whose outspread arms, framed by goldleaf at the top of an archway, seem to reach out toward her. Significantly, the mural is entitled "Creation," and the filmmakers seem to imply that the creation of a painter named Frida Kahlo is soon to follow. Indeed, it is the streetcar accident that will engender her art, for she starts painting to relieve the angst of bed and body-cast confinement. To show Frida's impalement, Taynor employs a high angle lens so that we, like Rivera's God, look down from above at her body, which is covered with gold dust someone had carried onto the streetcar—an almost unbelievable biographical detail. Frida's motionless body, framed by the streetcar floor and glittering with gold, thus looks like the gilt image in a Russian icon. The filmmakers have succeeded in connecting the "two accidents" of Frida's life by juxtaposing the gold of Rivera's "Creation" with the gold of Kahlo's creation: two accidents that turned Frida, herself, into a creator.
DURING HER RECUPERATION, THEN, THE filmmakers show Frida painting butterflies onto her body-cast, implying that within her plaster cocoon, Frida will metamorphose into an artist. Significantly, Diego Rivera once described his wife's art as "hard as steel and as fine as butterfly wings."
The film makes clear that one of the art works Frida creates is a butterfly-like "self." As Hayden Herrera has put it, Frida "preferred to be seen as a beguiling personality rather than as a painter." The film presents her beguiling moments with élan: drinking other artists under the table, dancing an erotic tango, seducing Josephine Baker. It also captures the art with which she covered, what in the film she calls, "This Judas of a body": the ribbons and flowers braided into her exotically arranged hair, her carefully painted fingernails, the traditional Mexican jewelry and Tehuana dress adorning her slim frame. Frida even created a new origin for her life, quite "unrealistically" telling people that she was born in the year 1910 when her actual birthday was 6 July 1907. However, 1910 was as symbolic as the images Frida placed into her self-portraits, for it was the year Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata ignited the Mexican revolution.
Upon first seeing Frida's self-portrait hanging in Trotsky's office, Andre Breton described her creativity with words alluding to both body and painting: "Clad in gilt butterfly wings, in just such a garment, she has opened the inner curtain a crack." The inner curtain revealed the art-generating pain that had been with her since childhood. Significantly, when the polio-stricken Frida was confined to bed for nine months at age six, she would blow on the window behind her bedroom curtains and outline a door on the condensation with her finger: "I imagined that I then ran, full of excited anticipation, out through this 'door,' and crossed the vast 'plain' which I saw in my mind's eye stretching out before me." Drawing on the pane, Frida escaped her pain, as she would later do with her canvases. Frida, the film, is like that window pane, presenting us with an imaginative— rather than "realistic"—door through which we might escape, with Frida, from her pain.
When she died, Diego sat by Frida's body all night, unconvinced of the "realism" of her death. He told an observer, "it's strange that she still shows signs of vascular movement. The hairs are standing up on her skin! I can't stand the idea of her being cremated in such uncertain circumstances!" To reassure Diego, a doctor cut open one of Frida's veins to prove that she no longer bled.
Thus, even in her death, Frida refused "realism." It therefore seems appropriate that a film about her life should do so as well.
Crystal Downing dedicates this essay "to my Bookclub friends, with whom, after a Spanish prayer and Mexican dinner, I first discussed the film Frida. Two of them provided me with the book from which the above quotations and biographical details are taken: Isabel Alcdntara and Sandra Egnolff, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. New York: Prestel, 1999."