Julie Taymor’s Oscar nominated film Frida (2002) chronicles the life of the famous and infamous, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. The film opens with Frida, played by Selma Hayek, as she is being moved out of her house while still in her bed. As the movers carry her through the home, each room seems to leap out of Frida’s paintings to the screen. Full of color and odd assortments, peacocks in the garden, masks, self-portraits, these early shots show Frida as both the subject and creation of her art.
Taymor’s direction blends subject with form throughout the biopic, reenacting many of the key events in Kahlo’s life with the imagery popularized in her work. The trolley accident that changed Frida’s life takes on an artistic lens bordering on the surreal. Just before the accident occurs, another passenger pours glitter-like gold flecks into teenage Frida’s hand. When the collision happens moments later, the gold flecks fly into the air and fall over Frida’s bloodied body creating an image that is a mixture of beauty and horror.
The dream sequence that follows breaks into a new visual language. A montage of puppet skeletons abstractly depict Frida’s recovery in the hospital, some wearing nurse uniforms and a dislocated voice, most likely a doctor, diagnosis Frida’s condition. The skeletons move around against a black background, shaking and dancing in an impressionistic nightmare of the three weeks Frida spends in the hospital. Throughout Taymor experiments with different styles to represents Frida’s imagination, torment, and talent.
As Frida recovers, her pain is directly funneled into her art, first when she paints a butterfly on her body when her teenage boyfriend tells her he is leaving her for Europe, then continuously throughout the film through the highs and lows of her life. But the film also makes the distinction that Frida is more than just a painter by also focusing on her sexuality, activism, gender non-conformism, and turbulent marriage to Diego Rivera. Unapologetic about her choices in clothing, partners, or politics, the film presents its subject without fear of tarnishing an image, something that is rare for biopics.
The film draws to a close by contextualizing the opening scene as Frida arrives to her first and only solo gallery in her home country. Subverting her doctor’s orders in true Frida fashion, she has turned her mandatory bedrest into a dramatic entrance to the event she has waited for her entire life. As with her art, the imagery of Frida entangles defiance, agony, and joy with the very last scene implying Frida’s death. Choosing to close on a representation rather than a reenactment, Frida holds its own as not just a retelling but as a living-painting. Melding the representation of Hayek as Frida in a moving painting, Frida smiles while sleeping in a burning bed underneath the literal specter of death. The image does not replace the artist’s original work, but instead adds movement on the screen to bring her work into another phase of life.