'Frida' compelling, but focus is on life of wife over artist

Somewhere, surely, in the dim volumes of art history lurks a talented artist who lived out his/her life with a happy, supportive helpmate. But don't expect to see a movie about this person any time soon. Like Ed Harris' "Pollock," Julie Taymor's "Frida" is first and foremost the story of a relationship, rather than an examination of an artist. Producer Sarah Green, in Seattle last month for a preview screening, confirmed this in her words of introduction. "Frida," she said, is a love story.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, and certainly there's not much wrong with what "Frida" is: a well-told tale and a colorful showcase for a marvelously steely performance by Salma Hayek (she's never been better), and for Taymor's trademark visual flair. Really, my only quarrel with "Frida" is for what it isn't: a portrait of the artist as a woman and a painter, rather than as half of a couple.

Frida Kahlo, the famed painter whose work adorns museums, tote bags and calendars the world over, lived most of her brief and eventful life in her native Mexico. As a young woman, she suffered massive injuries in a bus accident (depicted here as a wondrously gold-dusted fever dream, followed by a bloody, macabre animation sequence), which necessitated numerous operations, casts, harshly confining corsets and endless therapy.

At 22, she married the already-famed painter Diego Rivera, a man many years older, and the two pledged to be loyal to each other, if not faithful. Their relationship, a series of separations, infidelities and reunions that included a divorce and remarriage, lasted until her death at 47. "I suffered two grave accidents in my life," Kahlo once said, in a line echoed in the film. "One in which a streetcar knocked me down. ... The other accident is Diego."

This is spicy stuff, and it's understandable that Taymor and the screenwriters (including an uncredited Edward Norton, who also appears in the film as Nelson Rockefeller) chose to focus on it, rather than the admittedly much more difficult task of exploring a painter's relationship with her work. It's a bit disappointing, though, that for entire stretches of "Frida" it's easy to forget that she's an artist — the paintbrushes, and the works that result from them, feel secondary.

But there's a great deal to admire in this often-beautiful film, not the least of which is the emergence of Hayek as a bravura actress. As Frida, she's as intense as the peacock-blue walls of her home in Mexico City's culturally rich Coyoacan district — bursting with energy as a young girl, staring at the ceiling as if to drill two holes in it as she lies bedridden, dancing a sultry tango at a party after her marriage. She's wisely subtle in conveying Frida's physical defects, but even when barely limping (biographer Hayden Herrera notes that Kahlo went through periods when her disability was almost unnoticeable) Hayek gives the sense of being slightly misaligned, of placing weight oddly while walking.

Alfred Molina, looking massive next to the tiny Hayek, is perfectly cast as the bear-like Rivera, seamlessly blending love and thoughtlessness. Roger Rees, in the small role of Frida's German-born father, contributes a gem of a performance (and an effortless Mexican-German accent), quietly watching his daughter through kind, concerned eyes.

And Taymor drenches the film in color — Frida's red and green wedding outfit is so vivid that it seems to drain the hues from everything around it. And her re-creations of Kahlo's paintings, though too few, are stunning. In one, soaked in blue, Frida stares unblinkingly into a mirror; in another, Frida's green Mexican dress hangs outside a New York window, among the grayish rows of apartment buildings. It's enough to make you scurry off to find a book about Frida Kahlo — which is, perhaps, the ultimate compliment for a film biography.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

Movie review

"Frida," with Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush, Ashley Judd, Edward Norton, Valeria Golino, Roger Rees. Directed by Julie Taymor, from a screenplay by Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, based on the biography by Hayden Herrera. 118 minutes. Rated R for sexuality, nudity and language. Metro, Meridian.