A biopic is normally a tricky affair to produce. It is easy to get off track and lose sight of expected objectives. A biopic, the way I see it, represents a character study of a person who has left a deep impression on people’s lives, and whose own life, at some level, serves as an inspiration to others. But then there have been biopics about unpopular figures, too. Even if a biopic lacks inspirational elements, it should at the very least portray some facet of a person’s life that has never been learned before or rarely discussed; some of it can be driven solely from an educational perspective. The word “inspiration” is the key factor is determining if a biopic represents an “against-all-odds” story. There is a delicate balance that needs to be maintained in creating a biopic. Too much focus on either a person’s personal life or on a person’s professional life can lead to a story that fails to cover significant events shaping a person’s identity. It is this equation on which biopics function. At some level, “Frida” (2002) takes an imbalanced approach to bring Frida Kahlo to screen.
Director Julie Taymor’s “Frida” is a strange biopic of the famous surrealist Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo. In the film’s opening sequence, Frida Kahlo–played by Salma Hayek–suffers a severe accident that impairs her legs, leaving an irreparable scar on Frida’s life forever. As we see her struggles through the recovery process, we witness Frida’s family supporting her by providing Frida with a canvas and easel so that she can continue painting. It is probably one of the few scenes in the film that shows Frida painting. Much of Frida’s story in the film is dedicated to representing her tumultuous marital relationship with Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), and then later with Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush). Frida idolizes Diego’s work, and through several events, Diego accepts the offer to provide critiques on Frida’s work. The mutual attraction between the two increases and both decide to get married, with Frida asking Diego’s loyalty in return. Of course, Diego being a womanizer, he regularly sleeps with other women, but when he sleeps with Frida’s sister, Frida decides to live separately. At that time, Frida develops a relationship with a Russian revolutionary leader, Leon Trotsky, who has received political asylum in Mexico from Stalin’s regime in Russia. At a later point Diego and Frida get back together, and Frida’s physical condition worsens.
There are segments in “Frida” that move us emotionally, but yet none of it feels satisfying in the end. Part of the problem lies in what I described in the opening section of the review. Frida Kahlo was one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, yet the film does little to depict the artistic side of her character and how she eventually became famous. Pain, both physically and emotionally, played a big part in Frida’s paintings, and some of her most-influential works were produced after Frida’s accident and in later years after a miscarriage. She would often paint herself as the central subject because Frida understood herself better than any other subject. For Frida, an easel and canvas signified a medium of expressing pain, anger, and sorrow that was translated to paintings through the use of bold colors and striking imagery. In the paintings, her character would be trapped in a surreal-like world, and compositionally, Frida’s paintings had elements of abstract expressionism. The colors–mainly the reds, greens, yellows–are vibrant, symbolizing feminism by portraying the complexities of a female body. A symbolic scene at the end of the movie overlays Frida’s painting, in which Frida has painted herself in a bedridden condition, onto Frida’s dying condition in the film. The painting catches fire and we see Frida’s smiling face, expressing Frida’s end. Unfortunately, apart from this scene, the screenplay fails to emphasize the artistic Kahlo who during her short, troubling life garnered immense accolades.
Given the limitations of the script, Salma Hayek still manages to portray Frida Kahlo well, although with mixed results. Since the script fails to explain Frida’s transition as an artist and the meaning behind Frida’s paintings, Frida’s character in the movie never matches the intricacies of the real-life Frida Kahlo. Instead, the plot weighs heavily on demonstrating Frida’s personal relationship problems, making the entire effort utterly distracting and defocussed at times. On the sexual front, we don’t get any insights on Frida’s bisexual behavior, which was a source of continuous tension between Frida and Diego. Although there scenes in the movie that show Frida’s same-sex sexual indulgences, the film never quite explains Frida’s emotional state of mind as a bisexual personality. Indeed, by the time the movie finishes, we see only Frida’s troubled marriage. Hayek and Molina are both acceptable in their roles, but their on-screen exchanges lack an honest introspection of a couple trapped in a bad marriage.
However, despite the negatives, “Frida” features stunning camera work and high production values. The filmmakers, through realistic set designs and costumes, have paid close attention to period details in capturing the turbulent political climate of Mexico in the early 1900’s. Even with bright colors, the sets are never flashy. “Frida” won two Academy Awards, one of Best Costume Design and the other for Best Original Score.
Lionsgate brings “Frida” to Blu-ray in an aspect ratio of 1.781:1, encoded using an AVC codec. The 1080p transfer is simply stunning, capturing the heart and essence of the movie. The first thing that is evident is the film’s lively palette. Colors such as the blues, reds, yellows, and blacks are deep and vibrant. The print is in pristine condition with no sign of blemishes like surface damage, specks, and dirt. Sharpness and detail are remarkable for both the close-up and long shots, and the depth in scenes stays consistent throughout. The grain is retained, making this a filmic transfer. The close-ups are tight looking, too, and the skin tones are warm and realistic, never appearing over processed. Indeed, Lionsgate has done a wonderful job in presenting this movie in 1080p.
Elliot Goldenthal’s award-winning score sounds superb in lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. The rear channels remain active during the film’s soundtrack, providing an immersive experience. The front channels are active throughout, and the dialogue comes up crisp and clean. The bass is present in the opening accident segment, perfectly balanced with the rest of the frequency spectrum.
Lionsgate has carried over all the bonus features from the two-disc DVD edition. First, there is a commentary track with director Julie Taymor. This is a low-key track, but she provides useful information about the production and script.
Following this, there are a number of interview segments. First, in “A Conversation with Salma Hayek,” Hayek talks about her character in the film and how she transformed herself into the real-life Frida Kahlo. She talks about her long-term desire to play as Frida Kahlo. Next, the American Film Institute hosts an interview with Julie Taymor, followed by a Bill Moyers interview with Julie Taymor.
The next series of bonus features focuses on the film’s technical aspects. “The Voice of Lila Downs” focuses on the film’s background vocalist. Up next, “The Vision of Frida” is a discussion piece with the film’s cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto and Julie Taymor, talking about the cinematography. “The Design of Frida” is another discussion segment, this time with the film’s designer, Felipe Fernández. Next, “The Music of Frida” discusses Elliot Goldenthal’s Oscar-winning score.
Following this, “Salma’s Recording Session” shows Salma Hayek recording her voice for the film’s soundtrack, but most of it was left out due to sound quality. “Bringing Frida Kahlo’s Life and Art to Film” takes us to the locations where the film was shot. Up next, “Portrait of an Artist” is a promotional piece. “Amoeba Proteus: Visual FX Piece” describes the special effects utilized in the film, followed by another special-effects segment, “The Brothers Quay.”
“Frida” is a frustrating biopic that has good star power and fine performances, but its underwhelming story of Frida Kahlo fails to uplift it. Kahlo was a renowned artist because she was able to translate her pain into paintings; the themes in Kahlo’s images are universal, finding a connection with people. Unfortunately, the film fails to show Kahlo’s progression as an artist and doesn’t shed much light on her works. The Blu-ray is an improvement in every aspect, making it an easy recommendation for fans of the film.