A lifestyle magazine and mail-order catalog may be the only tie-in opportunities not yet explored by business-minded admirers of Frida Kahlo. The work of the late Mexican painter (she died in 1954 at the age of 44 or 47, depending on the source) is famous for its fantastical imagery and agonized vibrancy. But in recent years, the unconventional life and personal flair of the artist have become as famous as her art. And Kahlo the person (tiny and hairy, bisexual, bent by polio and broken bones) has been glammed and outfitted into Frida the style setter, a personage whose imprimatur could move merchandise at Bloomingdale’s.
Frida Kahlo’s work conveys essential, mysterious, authentic female complexity; Frida the one-named celebrity conveys commodification as glib as that of Madonna — who, as it happens, is a leading collector of Kahlo’s work. So it is with Frida, a biopic in which cinematic storytelling invention can’t compete, in the end, with the movie’s glossy presentation of clothes, earrings, housewares, politics, sexual liaisons, and tableaux vivants of artists at work. A revolutionary life has rarely felt less edgy, or the biography of an iconoclast more bourgeois.
This isn’t the fault of the actors who, while not especially electrifying, are certainly sincere and devoted to their assignments. Salma Hayek makes a reasonable, mildly spiced Kahlo and wears the famous Kahlo unibrow with dignity (although after one obligatory mug shot, she hasn’t got time for the famous Kahlo mustache); Alfred Molina serves stolidly as Diego Rivera, Kahlo’s husband, mentor, and fellow artist, hulking elephant to her tiny dove of a frame. But their scenes — of straying and reconciling, of making art and making love, of hell-raising and politicking — look like just that, scenes, staged with such laborious care and middlebrow admiration for famous, arty lives lived large that the movie gives off the well-printed sheen of a coffee-table book.
”I was painting murals and womanizing in peace before you came along,” Rivera tells Kahlo in movie-speak, and movie preciousness drains the cactus juice from ”Frida” even when the catchy music is turned on full Mexican blare. A girl-girl tango scene between Hayek and Ashley Judd as photographer Tina Modotti is stiff with self-regard; a bedroom sex scene between Hayek and Geoffrey Rush as Leon Trotsky is limp with silliness. (”Leon, tell me about your children,” Kahlo murmurs to the Communist leader while touring Mexican antiquities, speaking as daintily as Mrs. Bush taking tea with Mrs. Putin.)
”Frida” is directed by Julie Taymor, a forceful artist partial to the fantastical herself and brilliantly adept at it in staged fantasies like ”The Lion King.” Indeed, Taymor sprinkles her movie with glittering miniature theater pieces that indulge the director’s fondness for collage, puppetry, surrealism, and cross-cultural spectacle. The interludes are lovely and busy, but they seem like intrusions into the real business of ”Frida,” which is What Would Frida Wear?