She’s been dead for nearly half a century, but Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is the quintessential artist of our moment. Kahlo was female, Latina, disabled, bisexual, Communist, and even part Jewish. She hobnobbed with world-historical figures from Nelson Rockefeller to Leon Trotsky, yet during her lifetime was largely unrecognized outside her circle. Best of all, her overriding subject was . . . herself. Since Hayden Herrera’s biography propelled this hitherto marginal figure toward single-name celebrity, the artist herself has become an icon—the face that launched a hundred thousand refrigerator magnets.
Herrera opened a 1983 Artforum article on Kahlo by introducing the artist as the star of a unique melodrama, citing the 35 surgical operations Kahlo endured from age 18—when her torso was crushed and impaled in a trolley accident—until her death at 47. She next describes the Mexican folk costumes Kahlo wore, in part to conceal her injuries and in part to define her image. The subject of some 200 self-portraits, Kahlo played Gauguin to her own Tahiti and became her own trademark. Her concern with self-presentation and frank use of her physical condition anticipate later practitioners of performance and body art. Indeed, watching Salma Hayek impersonate Kahlo in Julie Taymor’s Frida, it’s difficult not to ponder the ironies inherent in the star’s frisky perf and voluptuous bod.
Hayek, who also co-produced, inhabits Frida with the unconcealed triumph of one who has successfully wrested the role away from such formidable wannabes as Madonna and J.Lo. An earlier Kahlo biopic fell apart 10 years ago when angry Latina actresses protested the casting of Laura San Giacomo in the title role. But no one can fault Hayek’s ethnicity or mistake her exuberant self-stereotyping. Mischievous schoolgirl or imperious invalid, Hayek is a tempestuous spitfire—eyes aflash, lip curled, bodice swelling. Whatever the real Frida might have been, this one, as the former editor of The New Yorker used to say, is hot hot hot.
While husband-to-be Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) argues politics with rival muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros (Antonio Banderas), Frida dances a mad provocative tango with comrade art-world babe, photographer Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd). Frida is a woman to whom nothing is foreign. She can hurl dishes at Diego (a big, good-natured slob who brushes off his infidelities with lines like “It was just a fuck—I’ve given more affection in a handshake”), march at the head of the May Day demonstration, party down with the workers in a raunchy mariachi bar, accept the praise of suave surrealist André Breton (“Your paintings express what everyone feels—that they are alone and in pain”), or tenderly give herself to smitten Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), brightening his exile and last year on earth.
Paul Leduc’s no less hagiographic Frida, made in Mexico in 1984, presented Kahlo’s life as a series of achronological episodes. The result was static and overly curatorial, but the impressionist model might have served Taymor better than her Frida‘s straightforward script, which is ultimately overwhelmed with incident and suggests the labor of many hands. “I paint what I see—the world outside. You, you paint from in here,” Diego tells Frida, grandly thumping his chest, and Taymor herself seems to have taken that observation to heart. Frida‘s strongest scenes—including the catastrophic streetcar accident in which Kahlo is splayed out, bloody, and (as actually happened) covered with gold dust—are boldly stylized and halfway to cartoon animation. There’s even a tasty bit of business, apparently designed by the uncredited Brothers Quay, in which the delirious girl is ministered by a gaggle of Day of the Dead skeletons. The movie’s palette is vibrant, and the numerous meals served throughout are delectable enough to upstage the star.
Frida bogs down in close-ups and plot explication, but hopeful Taymor never stops swatting the piñata of Kahlo’s subjectivity. Improving upon her turgid adaptation of Titus, the director has no fear of gaudy trinkets. Would that there were more. Kahlo’s paintings are regularly brought to life to take their place in the grand gallery of MTV surrealism. The pet monkeys that scamper through the heroine’s tropical garden are reprised when she accompanies Diego to New York and in an elaborate hallucination imagines him as her King Kong. Swank and splashy as it is, Frida leaves the lurking suspicion that Taymor might have preferred to stage her pageant as a puppet show.
Another ’80s cult figure, French philosopher Jacques Derrida first appears in Derrida crossing Houston Street, not five blocks from the venue where this documentary portrait is having its local premiere. Derrida seems supremely at home in New York. His discourse mixes French and English, and it has long been suggested that his brilliance was more prized here than in Paris. The menacing phrase “Derridean deconstruction machine” had the aura of a secret password back when I was in grad school, and I treasure the story that the front row of the master’s Yale lectures was occupied by a gaggle of black-clad co-eds known as the Derridettes.
Derrida, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, assumes a similar perspective. The prof holds forth on subjects ranging from the concept of the future and the dynamics of forgiveness to the mystery of the other and the nature of narcissism, including his own. (There’s a garmento flash to his wardrobe; he’s fashionable in more ways than one.) The movie is ultimately about the philosopher’s personality—if you loved Lingua Franca (and what lumpen academoid did not?), you’ll certainly dig Derrida. It’s endearing to hear Madame D. refer to her husband as “Jackie”—and he does make for excellent company, not least as a self-conscious performer. Derridean analysis is founded, in part, on determining who speaks for whom (and from where). The filmmakers enter into the spirit, playfully deconstructing their own process by including shots of Derrida fiddling with his microphone and going to the cinematic interpersonal: “So this is what you call cinema verité. Everything is false. I’m not like this.” Naturally.
Movies about philosophers are in short supply, perhaps with reason. Asked what he’d like to see in documentaries on Hegel or Heidegger, Derrida immediately expresses curiosity as to their sex lives—although he himself is the soul of evasion. Indeed, Derrida’s most spontaneous moments occur as a public figure. He seems genuinely nonplussed, if not downright testy, when an overeager British interviewer attempts to lure him into a discussion of Seinfeld. “Deconstruction as I understand it does not produce any sitcoms,” Derrida haughtily tells her. “Do your homework and read.”
Having stunned the world with his glorious backstage Gilbert and Sullivan romp Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh sobers up and returns to more familiar turf. All or Nothing is set in a depressed London housing estate whose employed denizens, high Cockney most of them, hold depressing jobs and ward off clinical depression by challenging the Guinness world record for use of the term “fuck off.” The main depressives, played by Leigh regulars Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville, are a cab driver and supermarket cashier with two extra-large children, one of whom stoically mops up after the elderly while the other strains the capacity of the family’s living-room couch.
Humanistic tearjerker or misanthropic troll opera? Leigh uses a somber cello-rich score to infuse this quotidian suffering with a mystical edge and high-culture gloss—and yet, thanks to the generally enthusiastic performing, the movie borders on farce. (It’s revealing that Leigh would be a fan of Todd Solondz.) The most Dickensian of British filmmakers, Leigh populates All or Nothing with a grotesque assortment of drunken hags, persistent old wankers, creepy loners, belligerent slugs, and nut-job taxi fares—not to mention the pair of lissome young actresses compelled to contort their features into hilarious Kabuki-mask scowls. The ensemble is as compact in its way as the cast of a sitcom—and no less inclined to squabble and whine. The exception is Ruth Sheen’s chipper impression of a single mother with a pregnant daughter. (Mysteries of personality—why did her character get the cheerful gene?)
All or Nothing can be rough going—even a bit grueling—building up through a medical crisis to the big scene between Spall and Manville. To be fair, it’s largely a Spall solo. (Manville had her quieter equivalent at the end of Topsy-Turvy.) And to be accurate, his raw theatricality is at odds with the preceding action. Still, Leigh’s lesser films are founded on such privileged moments. Though more cathartic than redemptive, this sob-racked confession is the payoff for two hours of low-grade misery.
“Frida Icon: The Return of the Kahlo Cult” by Joy Press