Frida – Hispanic Heritage Month
The film Frida (2002) tells the story of the life and times of noted Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. It follows her from a small school girl (beginning on the first day she meets her husband, Diego) to her very old age, after she has achieved prominent status in Mexico and the art world. Throughout the film, the director, Julie Taymor, makes use of artistic reenactments of Frida’s work, to show both her mentality, and inspiration over her lifetime. The literary design of the film (opening with Frida’s sickness and decrepit body) makes the point that through great pain, comes great beauty, and that great sadness can produce great joy. It also incorporates and utilizes the artistic reenactments of her life by making the point that art was not only her vehicle for self-expression during the traumatic moments of her life, but also the beauty in her life that gave her the joy, strength, and resolve to carry on where others would wither up in depression.
The narrative is presented as a progression of time and emotions from Frida’s point of view. It involves flashbacks, in the way we see Frida in the very beginning as an old and fragile woman, and then we go back to her days in school. The entire story is a flashback, which is often done with bio-pics and doc-u-dramas to show why this person is important. However, this device is used differently in Frida. In the first scene, Frida’s truck hits a boulder, and she seethes in pain. This is not a pointless occurrence, because it makes us sympathize with her while also informing us of her fragile state of health, and draws the audience more into the film’s grasp.
One of the unique strengths of Frida is that it does not follow the classic guidelines of Biopics and DocuDramas. Whereas most directors might have told a film about: Frida’s many lovers; the important achievements of her life; and delved into her “complex and tortured” psyche, this interpretation always goes back to her interaction with her husband Diego, while glancing over her important accomplishments. This creates a unique effect by placing importance on the emotional, rather than the factual. It allows us to care more for the lead character, instead of simply drawing her as a caricature, so that when Frida is in pain and suffers defeats, we feel for her. It also puts more of an emphasis on the complex coexistence between sadness and beauty by focusing on the emotional state of the main character. For example, in the aftermath of the trolley scene when we see Frida impaled, we aren’t just observing the incident; there is a physical reaction to the sight. This only happens because we have spent the previous ten minutes learning about Frida and identifying with her. Also, just before Frida goes to her exhibition near the end, she fights with Diego and the doctor whether she can go or not because she is in such poor health. However, in the end she not only goes to her exhibition, but is carried in like a queen. She has overcome her poor health, and in fact receives this royal entrance because of her poor health, so from great pain, comes great beauty. In addition, although this is a humorous entrance, we aren’t laughing at the sight, but routing for her, and applauding her determination and accomplishment. It also adds a great sense of joy to her life even though there is much tragedy in it, by making the point that she always did what she loved, and lived life to its fullest. This involves us in her life much easier, and causes us to identify with her as a human being and not just a famous artist.
The trolley accident itself also makes the point that great beauty comes from great pain, both as a piece of literary design, but also as an event within itself. Immediately after the accident, the director gives us a high-angle shot on Frida’s body where she has been covered in gold, and she is actually quite beautiful. It is only after a moment that we realize she has been impaled on a metal rod. From a literary design perspective, this one incident permeates every other event of the story. She can’t climb the steps to meet Diego when she goes to ask him about her paintings. She can’t give birth because she can’t bare the pain from her scars and wounds, and the one child she does try to have results in a miscarriage. The accident also results in the loss of her foot when it becomes infected with gangrene. However, all these events resulted in her creating artwork, all of which corresponded to the difficulties she was having at that time. Henceforth, the pain and sadness of the trolley resulted in her artwork.
The artistic reenactments of Frida’s works are often tied in with the moments of pain and tragedy of Frida’s life, making a much more literal association with beauty and sadness. For example, after Diego loses his job in New York, Frida sits in a bath and sees King Kong falling from the top of the Empire State Building. This is a reference to a movie she created in her head earlier in the film, where Diego was King Kong and he was climbing the Empire State Building. She later turns this scene into a mural, and from Diego’s unhappiness created a beautiful painting. Another example is when Frida is told her foot needs to be amputated. Her mind retreats into a fantasy world where her metal spine is cracked in several places and nails are hammered into her skin. The picture gradually dissolves into a painting that Frida is working on, and the figure of herself sheds real tears on the canvas. This shows that Frida’s back has been broken and this is the last straw that broke the camel’s back. However, this image is still aesthetically beautiful, despite how emotionally painful the situation is. We also often see a direct correlation between Frida’s own emotional downfalls, and the inspirations of her artwork. After Frida’s trolley accident, her boyfriend Bernardo tells her he is leaving for Europe and the two will never see each other again. In the middle of the conversation, Frida begins drawing a butterfly on the shoulder of her caste. This is the first sign of Frida’s artistic ability and desires. It is also the first sign that she retreats to art when she is in physical or emotional pain. This therefore begins the pattern that out of great pain comes great beauty and this theme carries on throughout the film. She draws and paints furiously to the point that she runs out of room on her caste, and her father gives her a piece of canvas and a painting table so she can work lying down. She continues to paint through her recovery process, and it is in the scene where she is painting a portrait of her sister that she walks for the first time to her parents. This emphasizes that the beauty in her life came from the pain in her life. Her painting began because of the accident and her boyfriend leaving her, and her joyous recovery is caused by her painting. Another example is after her miscarriage, Frida demands that she see the fetus. She carefully looks at this torn and mangled creature in front of her, and the first thing she does is draw a painting of it.
The film’s plot is classical, and the action is propelled by the interaction between Frida and her husband Diego Rivera. The characters are the film because the narrative of the story revolves around how Frida’s life is affected by her husband. She may follow her own passions in what she does with her life and her art, but her passions are often tied to Diego. Even at the very beginning, Frida’s first interest in art stems from Diego. She meets Diego as a young child, in one of the earliest scenes in the film as he is painting a mural on her school’s wall. She later goes back to the mural staring at it in starry-eyed fascination, and is also one of the last things she does before her life is changed by the trolley accident. We therefore see almost a Pavlovian association within the film and within Frida’s character: she sees a beautiful work of art (which was created by Diego); she gets on the trolley and experiences pain and suffering; her life falls to shambles and she resorts to art to comfort her; the first thing she does after she recovers is go to Diego for his critique and approval. Therefore, without Diego Frida would have no drive within her life, and there would be no movie. Also, without Diego, Frida would not suffer so much. Throughout their relationship and marriage, Diego cheats on her many times with many different women. This constantly tortures Frida, especially when she finds out that she cheated on Diego (in order to get back at him) with someone he had already slept with. Finally, she divorces him when he sleeps with her sister, and she takes him back in the end. The emotional torture never stops, Frida even says, “There have been two big accidents in my life Diego: the trolley and you. You are by far the worst.” However, from each of these incidents comes a new work of art from Frida’s brush. The pain from Frida’s relationship with Diego causes many of her artistic works. After Frida leaves Diego, she begins a surge of painting and creativity. She paints canvas, sculptures, and even paints on walls, and transforms herself to look like a man. She only does this after Diego has left her and humiliated her. In her conversation with Lupe, she says she is determined to sell some of her paintings for a living. This is the determination through her artwork that she found in defeat.
Because Frida Kahlo tried to distinguish herself as a Mexican artist, another important attribute of the film is the way director Julie Taymor tried to tie Frida and Mexican culture together as one character while utilizing the overall theme. One way she did this was by having a crucial scene when Frida is showing Trotsky the Mayan temples, and Frida shares with him the pains of her life. “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.” Trotsky then says, “That’s what I loved about your paintings, that they carry that message. You said that no one would care about them, but I think you’re wrong. Because your paintings express what everyone feels: that they are alone, and in pain.” This crystallizes the whole point of the film, that no matter how bad things get, we can always survive them, and gather strength from them. Trotsky not only compliments her abilities as a talented artist, but says that her paintings carry the important message of pain and loneliness. Another important use of motif is the dream sequence after the trolley car accident, in which Frida is in the hospital, but sees all the doctors and nurses around her as Mexican skeleton dolls. She is in agonizing pain and has been virtually torn apart by this accident, but the dream sequence has children’s puppets to represent the doctors.
In conclusion, one of the most revealing moments of the film’s meaning is the very end when the title is shown, “I hope the exit is joyful and never to return.” Frida. This only reaffirms that Frida’s life was sad, but in the end a small model of her bursts into flames, a final statement of Julie Taymor’s, that the exit was joyful, despite the sad residence.
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