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Film: Strokes of Genius

Painters' styles matter as much as their lives in film bios

By Alan Scheidt · November 27th, 2002 · Movies
  Actress Salma Hayek brings artist Frida Kahlo to life in director Julie Taymor's film biography, Frida.
Actress Salma Hayek brings artist Frida Kahlo to life in director Julie Taymor's film biography, Frida.

One of the many remarkable moments in Frida, the new film biography of artist Frida Kahlo, occurs during a wedding sequence. In it we see what appears to be Kahlo's own painted portrait, depicting herself and muralist husband Diego Rivera. Seconds later live figures begin to move behind them and a moment later the two-dimensional bride and groom materialize into actors Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina. The effect is startling and magical, just like a Kahlo canvas.

Julie Taymor directed Broadway's The Lion King and Titus, her daring 1999 film adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, before tackling Frida. She has a background in painting and puppetry, and she knows how to synthesize visual arts into drama.

Her tools include collage (a trip to New York shows Hayek and Molina moving through a patchwork of famous photographs), stop-motion animation (rethinking Rivera's ascent of the American art world as King Kong's climb up the Empire state building) and bright, painterly images.

Taymor is not the first visionary to approximate a subject's painting style in a film biography. When the late British bad boy Derek Jarman made his anachronistic 1986 portrait, Caravaggio, he bathed the film in dark, shadowy photography equal to the artist's groundbreaking use of chiaroscuro. John Maybury's little-seen 2000 release, Love is the Devil, captures Francis Bacon's tortured life with equally tortured imagery. When Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly staged the title ballet of MGM's 1951 Oscar winner, An American in Paris (the story of an expatriate GI artist in the City of Lights), it was designed to look like a series of French Impressionistic knock-offs come to life.

Almost 30 years before Baz Luhrmann whipped Nicole Kidman through a Cuisinart of French cabaret life, John Huston made his own Moulin Rouge. This 1952 biography of Toulouse-Lautrec is legendary for casting the quite tall Jose Ferrer as the dwarf painter (the actor literally filmed the role on his knees) and George Auric's popular theme song. The lasting draw, however, is the rich visual scheme that manages to re-create many of Toulouse-Lautrec's most famous paintings. Interestingly enough, Huston's and Luhrman's equally colorful films share more than just titles; both films won Oscars for their splashy sets and costumes.

The life and work of Vincent Van Gogh inspired one of Robert Altman's best-ever movies, 1990's Vincent & Theo, a powerful dramatization of the Van Gogh brothers' symbiotic relationship. Altman's trademark direction is underscored by his son Stephen's art direction and Jean Lépine's photography. Whether on canvas or in an actual field, Altman shows the artist's famous sunflowers in bold fashion.

Watching Frida takes me back to the 1956 documentary, The Mystery of Picasso, which enjoyed a welcome re-release in the 1980s. Directed by New Wave auteur Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear, Diabolique) and photographed by Auguste Renoir's grandson, Claude, it features the artist himself creating canvases for the camera. There's even a nifty legend that all the canvases were destroyed after filming so they would only exist on screen. It isn't true. A film producer owns at least one of the paintings. The Mystery of Picasso remains the most unique document of the painter's craft ever filmed. Frida is a welcome addition to the list. ©



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