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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Careful Boys, She’s Still Alive BY DAVID THEIS Frida Directed by Julie Taymor et’s start with the good news. LDespite Madonna’s determination to make a Frida Kahlo biopic, she doesn’t make a single appearance here. Not as the celebrated artist. Not even as Tina Modotti, the kinky Commie. So yes, it’s safe to go to the theater to see what Frida’s lead actress and guiding light, Salma Hayek, a quartet of writers, and director Julie Taymor have wrought. Just don’t go expecting too very much. Given the low standards of the artist biopic genre, Frida is pretty enjoyable. The film isn’t as much of a drag as Ed Harris’ recent dogged turn as Jackson Pollock \(Pollock, preposterous as Anthony Hopkins’ incarnation of Picasso in 1996’s Surviving Picasso. No, Frida sends you back out into the world happy enough, but it does so at a costby toning down both Kahlo’s pain and her labors as an artist.The art itself is treated beautifully. Director Taymor, of Lion King image-making power to literally bring Frida’s portraits to life. But we see little of Kahlo’s own hard work. Instead Frida spends almost as much time serving lunch to the great men in her life as she does painting the Little Deer or Las Dos Fridas. For all of Taymor’s surrealistic flourishes, the story is told in a conventional manner. We begin with a scene of Frida, near death, being carried out of her house \(the beautifully phoCoyoacan neighborhood. She’s lying in her poster bed, apparently dead, and being carried by four men. While the apparent pallbearers ease through her patio, a peacock steps into view, as if to bid Frida adieu from this vale of tears. But when the bearers jostle the bed a bit, the mustachioed corpse of Frida opens its eyes and says, “Careful, boys, I’m still alive.” She’s not deadshe’s en route to her first major Mexico City exhibition, an honor that came only near the end of her life. From this rather jaunty opening, the film flashes back to scenes of a teenaged Frida racing through the streets of el centro, her boyfriend Alejandro \(Diego Luna of in tow It’s 1925 and Alejandro and some of her other friends are leaving the Preparatoria Nacional, their intellectually supercharged high school, where the already famous Diego Rivera \(Alfred of his murals. As Hayden Herrera’s biography, Frida, makes clear, Frida’s real life crowd was more sophisticated than the teenagers in Y Tu Mamci Tambien. They used to taunt their philosophy teacher for being afraid to take on Hegel, for example. When Frida asks them to go back into the school with her to watch the famous Rivera at work, they sneer at the man who was by then already disgraced in some leftist circles for taking government commissions. But when Frida tells them that he’s got a naked woman with him, they race back, hoping no doubt to catch the legendary, if physically improbable, ladies’ man getting busy with his model. Instead they were in for a better treatRivera’s wife Lupe Marin \(Valeria him of having yet another affair. The wife storms out, the kids taunt Rivera, then run when he busts out his pistola. This early scene and the one that follows, depicting the life-threatening accident that left Kahlo partially crippled and unable to bear childrenand also provided her with the subject matter for most of her paintingsshowcase all of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. For starters, the dialogue is too bald,. too literal. When Rivera’s wife confronts him and the model, the best she can muster is something like “are you fucking her, too?” This might have might have come off as something other than a cliche if Golino wasn’t playing Marin as such a red hot chili pepper. Problems with flat dialogue, designed more to convey information than to inform character, deflate the entire film, especially when pamphlet-length political arguments are forced into a couple of lines, as when Rivera and muralist confront each other over a bottle of tequila. \(And, yes, over a pistol as well, during a very boisterous and otherwise Hayek, as Frida, is hit and miss here. In later scenes, when Frida is in greater physical and emotional pain, she is not up to the task. If there’s a physically healthier person on the planet than Salma Hayek, I’d like to meet her. Her talent is mostly for comedy, particularly physical comedy. Frida’s depths elude herbut not Frida’s mischievousness and sense of daring. During this same parry scene, Hayek is at her best, as she wins a dance with Tina Modotti for the honor. When she seals the deal by passionately kissing Modotti at the tango’s end, Hayek has shown us Frida’s ability to dominate a stage occupied by physically larger figures. And in this same scene, Taymor has also captured something of that magical, larger-than life Mexico of the 1920s, when giants continued on page 29 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 12/6/02