The Frida Kahlo exhibit, at Instituto Tomie Ohtake in São Paulo, attracted 600,000 people in 100 days. Several feminist groups and individuals use her name in their social media handles: Filhas de Frida (@filhasdefrida), Frida Feminista (@fridafeminista), Somos Todas Fridas (@somostodasfridas), Não Me Kahlo (@naokahlo). Without a doubt, Frida Kahlo is an icon.
This review doesn’t address why she is famous, but rather who she was and if the most famous film about her is accurate and does the icon justice.
Such a remarkable life deserves an equally dramatic representation. The film, Frida, fulfills that role. Selma Hayek personifies Frida with passion and kindness. The scenes, colors, textures, and sounds are striking.
The film was released in 2002, with a script based on the book by Hayden Herrera and directed by Julie Taymor. Selma Hayek not only acted, but was also a producer. This level of female involvement is rare in Hollywood today, all the more so fifteen years ago.
Nonetheless, the film fails in some aspects:
1) The dialogue is superficial. In many instances, instead of letting the actor and /or environment subtly convey an emotion or moment, the actors use cliches, such as, “try to get me there in one piece” or “are you planning on having her after lunch or have you fucked her already?”
2) Frida’s sexuality. The film gives the impression that Frida’s bisexuality was designed to draw the attention of Diego Rivera (she begins her dance with Tina Moddoti by smiling at him, for example). There’s no denying that Diego was the main focus of her life. Frida’s correspondence indicates that she hoped her husband would be faithful, however, when he wasn’t, she used her sexuality as a quest for freedom, not as a tool to entertain him.
3) The accents! Ashley Judd plays Tina Moddoti and has a horrible Italian accent. Geoffrey Rush struggles to speak English with a Russian accent in his role of Trotsky. In the case of Diego, played by Alfred Molina (a British actor), his accent is even more confusing.
4) Absence of deep pain (physical and emotional). There is no indication in the film of how Frida suffered before the accident (she had polio at age 6) or the immense pain she faced in the last years of her life, at which time she was terrified of being alone, was addicted to morphine and was suicidal.
The real value of Frida as a symbol is the fact that she was such a complex woman. She questioned her own identity and self-worth (she often made self-depreciating comments about her art) AND she had the courage to look deeply within herself and expose who she was—in a man’s world, where she didn’t even have the right to vote (suffrage in Mexico only it happened in 1947). The film fails to capture the complexity of a strong, fragile, liberated and submissive woman.