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Art Attacks

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Leo Matiz/Sundance Institute

MOVIE REVIEW
Frida (2024)

Carla Gutiérrez's documentary about Frida Kahlo wants to focus on the artist as a person and a woman, rather than get dragged into the higher showbiz orbit of the cultural presence, Madonna-influencer and biopic subject also called Frida Kahlo, famous enough that her unibrow is enough to spark recognition. The result could be termed back-to-basics. In the absence of any third-party commentary, "Frida" uses Kahlo's own letters and diaries, alongside other contemporary texts written by lovers and friends, all read in voiceover by actors. Meanwhile the screen shows still photos, clippings and newsreel footage, plus views of Kahlo paintings. The film, premiering at Sundance on its way to audiences via Amazon, is after authenticity, fact rather than legend, although Ms. Gutiérrez is an editor by trade and knows that assembling a montage is as much of an active manipulation as a dramatized narrative can be.

In a brisk chronological telling, it covers Kahlo's youth in Mexico City, the gruesome bus crash that left her grievously injured and in pain from age 18 for the rest of her life, the long tempestuous relationship with painter Diego Rivera, and her engagement with revolutionary communism. An instinctive artist beholden to no particular teacher, Kahlo saw her paintings adopted by André Breton's surrealists and then by the fancy New York art world, a group receiving both barrels in her diaries, to wit: "These people make me want to vomit." Ms. Gutiérrez edits together Kahlo's dismay with the art market and Rivera's famous run-in with Nelson Rockefeller over the appearance of Lenin in a mural, making them more or less the same thing: the revolutionary global south crashing into the island of Manhattan and coming off worse. In Mexico Leon Trotsky lodges in the Kahlo-Rivera household for a bit, with the documentary suggesting the old goat spent his stay making eyes at Kahlo over the kitchen table and sneaking nine-page romantic letters to her under Rivera's nose. "So tired of this old man," mutters Kahlo to her diary.

Around all this the film shows many Kahlo paintings, none of them left as the artist envisaged them. Rather than appearing as static paintings, they are animated into modest life so that heads tilt, hands move, leaves blow and water ripples. This is hardly a new approach to still images, on screen or in person. Historic photos have been shifting and slipping in documentaries for ages, and a cottage industry of animated Vincent van Gogh art has sprung up and toured the world. Julie Taymor's biopic "Frida" (2002) dabbled with animating some of these same paintings, dropping its star Salma Hayek into a few of them. But it's still a fudge, and these days one that syncs neatly with the manipulations and disenchanting enchantments cast over the entire landscape of visual art by A.I. "Art requires the long look," wrote critic Robert Hughes. "Its images do not pass." These animations livening up the stationary paintings of Kahlo are presumably to bring them closer to the viewer, removing some barrier between you and them, although what barrier couldn't be tackled by giving them some form of the long look instead isn't clear. When the subjects of Kahlo paintings, most of them Kahlo herself, stir to shake off the arrows that pierce them and the burdens they carry so as to stand up tall much as the female superheroes around Captain Marvel have been doing lately, the net effect might work against the point of the original exercise. Determined not to inflate Kahlo's personal myth in order to deal more directly with her life, the film might imply that her art is getting in the way, which would be looking down the wrong end of the telescope.

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