I’d like to dedicate this review to anyone who lives with an invisible illness.
And while I’m at it, I may as well dedicate this review to anyone who lives with a person who lives with an invisible illness.
They are many. Rheumatoid Arthritis. Fibromyalgia. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Depression. Anxiety. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. You look “just fine” to everyone else, and can usually put on one hell of a show. But your life necessitates some clever maneuvering, a careful ballet of nutrition, medications, and therapy. Pay no attention to that team of health professionals behind the curtain.
Indulge me. Think back to when you were first diagnosed. You were probably faced with a choice after the news hit. What next? Would you remain silent and let the unspoken prognosis taunt you? Or would you own your condition and carry on?
We already know that many talented artists were mentally or physically ill. Sylvia Plath struggled with Bipolar Disorder. Emily Dickinson was famously depressed. Jackson Pollock suffered from hallucinations. And we know, cognitively, that they chose to create despite their perceived limitations. The mystery is usually how.
What if you could watch one of them continue to live and work, work and live, the brilliant mind laid bare?
A few nights ago, I viewed Julie Taymor’s Frida, starring Salma Hayek (Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Dogma) and Alfred Molina (Luther, The Da Vinci Code), a dramatic biopic about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Director Taymor (Across the Universe, The Tempest) is masterful in her interpretation of Kahlo’s life. Imagine thoughtful, subtextual acting paired with a rich, jewel-toned palette. Add some quirky visual effects involving Mexican sugar skulls and a pinch of intense heartbreak. That’s Frida.
Like most people, I was familiar with some of Kahlo’s artistic works, but had never taken the time to learn about her life which, luckily for me, is portrayed in the film.
As a young woman, she was in a bus accident and lived in constant pain for the rest of her days.
She had a long-term relationship with Diego Rivera, a ridiculously promiscuous photographer who broke her heart over and over again. Alfred Molina (Sister Cities, An Education) is riveting in the role. Rivera was passionate, kind, intellectual, the ideal lover. He just couldn’t seem to regulate himself to one woman. Kahlo, in a kind of competitive rage, had a brief affair with the married Leon Trotsky - played here by a wry Geoffrey Rush (Quills, the Pirates of the Caribbean series).
One scene in particular especially captured my imagination. Frida, the young folk artist, is invited to an elite cocktail party packed with established artists and writers. Two of the more pompous male invitees delve into the topic of communism - those were the times - and a heated exchange follows. One of them even pulls a gun on the other.
The hostess, Italian photographer Tina Modetti (played by Ashley Judd), attempts to diffuse the tension by offering a dance to whoever can drink the most liquor. The men all eye each other, but before anyone can stop her, little Frida finishes a half-full decanter of spirits, slams it down, and approaches Modetti for her prize. A captivating tango is performed by the two spirited women, and the other revelers can only laugh, then admire. In one move, Kahlo has easily leveled the playing field and forever declared that while she may want men, she will never need one. Diego is of course, smitten.
After they marry, Frida tells Diego that she doesn’t mind if he can’t be faithful, but he must be loyal. A true revolutionary, Diego tests this statute to the utmost. In the story as in real life, Kahlo is able to pour her physical pain and heartbreak into her work, giving her paintings a raw, heady quality that Taymor mimics in the film’s art direction.
At once bright, sensual, funny, engaging, and terribly sad, Frida spoke to something deep within me. She was a gentle, joyful heart shaped by pain. When ill, she used her down time to create, much like I started writing when I felt there was nothing else I could do. Because if you don’t know by now, I am in the tribe. The invisible illness tribe.
Hayek is a dream, Molina, a lovable nightmare. The epic is a result of careful writing, whimsical visual effects, and intuitive direction. It is an ode to the spirit of a young woman who had the courage to put her thoughts and feelings on canvas. Wounded artists are still artists. When everything else has been taken away, they can still create. And when there’s nothing to express but pain, pain is still a worthy expression.