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The Return of the Kahlo Cult

Braverman says she chose Kahlo as a protagonist because "she was a painter, a morphine addict, the first woman psychoanalyzed in Mexico—she's a prototype of female modernity. The trick was to invent a voice for the inner Frida, and to find a literary style as poetic and dangerous and prophetic as the paintings are. I felt I was an anthropologist discovering the subterranean Frida."

The most controversial element of The Incantation of Frida K. may be its portrayal of Diego Rivera as an almost monstrous figure with "the heart of a butcher." But Braverman insists that her Frida and Diego are not at war—they are entangled in a symbiotic relationship. "He cajoles her and he keeps her alive," she says. "At one point in the book he tells her, 'I give your agony focus.' "

Like Sylvia Plath, that other goddess of the angsty teen-girl set, Frida is sometimes lamented as a female genius overshadowed by her repressive, adulterous husband. But Taymor sees her movie as a love story, and has no sympathy for Diego detractors. "If people criticize the movie by saying our Diego is too nice—I would fight with that, because if you admire Frida, you could never present her as a woman who would just be abused. He was a giant, ugly man, so obviously there had to be a lot in Diego for her to want to be with him all those years," she says heatedly.

Defiance and self-possession: Diego on My Mind (1943)
image: Frida Kahlo
Defiance and self-possession: Diego on My Mind (1943)

"Frida took on a marriage knowing that this man's capability for fidelity was pretty slim," Taymor continues. "But the way she resolved her frustration was phenomenal. This woman didn't sit in the corner and mope; she took on her own sex life. What I find so fabulous and disturbing is that they never stopped loving each other through all that. . . . At the end when she was at her worst, her health was failing and she was alcoholic and addicted to drugs because of the pain—he came back to her."

Taymor, known for her avant-garde puppetry and for directing the stage version of The Lion King and the movie Titus, seems like the perfect filmmaker to bring Frida to the screen. The two artists share a visual sensibility that combines fantastical and folkloric imagery with tactile realism. "I was very attracted to the notion of how to realize her paintings in a surreal way," Taymor says. She brought in lyrical-goth animators the Brothers Quay to reenact Frida's post-accident hallucinations—a scene that some believe is at the heart of a dispute between Taymor and Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein.

"The movie will be amazing if Harvey Weinstein keeps his hands off of it," says Herrera, whose biography was the basis of the screenplay. "If you're hiring a genius like Taymor, you can't then say, I want to cut these 10 seconds or whatever it is. And she's as fierce as he is. She is the most focused person I've ever worked with." Currently in Brazil recording the film's soundtrack, Taymor won't comment on the rumors except to say, "We got tremendous scores in the previews. And we found males and females like the movie almost equally—can you believe it? Because it's not just her art, it's about her life."

Everyone has their own take on Kahlo's magnetic appeal. Braverman says that her Frida "is a thrill seeker, a delinquent, a revolutionary. . . . She spent so much of her life in solitary confinement in hospitals that I think Frida lived posthumously. In my book she is fueled by the myth she's creating."

According to Taymor, "She made herself an icon. She took her imperfections and made them the ultimate. She made her eyebrows and her mustache much more prominent than they were in real life; she emphasized what we would consider the ugly parts and made them beautiful. I think that appeals to many people because it tells them you can make something extraordinary out of ugliness."

Once the film hits the screen this fall, moviegoers will likely begin nursing their own personal Frida fantasies. "Frida Kahlo would have loved all this attention," Herrera says with a chuckle, "because she painted self-portraits partly to get people to acknowledge her." And she probably would have been thrilled to see petite Mexican starlet Salma Hayek decked out in frilly skirts and chunky jewelry, her face garnished with unibrow and mustache. Says Herrera, "There's one scene in my book where she's walking down the street with one of her doctors and they pass a pretty woman. Frida says, 'I'll smoke that one myself.' That's probably what she would have said about Salma."

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