Tuesday, April 23, 2024

“FRIDA”

THE STORY – The life of iconic artist Frida Kahlo, told through her own words from diaries, letters, essays, and interviews.

THE CAST – Frida Kahlo & Fernanda Echevarría del Rivero

THE TEAM – Carla Gutierrez (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 87 Minutes


Carla Gutiérrez’s work as a documentary film editor has shone a light on many trailblazing women in history, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2018’s “RBG” and Julia Child in 2021’s “Julia” to various fictional female heroes across film and television in 2012’s “Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines.” Gutiérrez carries on this journey of complex representation by illuminating one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century, whose influence is deeply embedded in today’s world. Gutiérrez makes her directorial debut with “Frida,” a playful and insightful documentary about Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo. The story of Frida has inspired numerous adaptations, including (most famously) Julie Taymor’s Oscar-winning 2002 film, which starred Salma Hayek in the titular role and Alfred Molina as Frida’s longtime partner, Mexican artist Diego Rivera. The nature of Frida and Diego’s relationship is one of many brushstrokes on Frida’s canvas. Filmmakers and historians have looked at her paintings as an indication of what was happening in her life. Art historian Hayden Herrera’s 1983 book “Frida Kahlo: The Paintings” is a source upon which both Taymor and Gutiérrez’s films are based. Gutiérrez operates in a similar rhythm to navigate the context behind Frida’s portraits while also taking a unique step further to immerse into the artist’s heart and soul. “Frida” visualizes beyond Kahlo, the icon, and creates a reflective narrative from the most trustworthy source of knowledge: Frida herself.

Considering how frequently Frida’s image has become referenced and contextualized worldwide, Gutiérrez finds strength by starting on a fresh canvas without the strict biographical perspective of an outsider to Frida’s experiences. The documentary is told entirely through the artist’s frame of mind. Letters, interviews, photographs, diaries, and rare archival footage paint an intimate portrait, as does the beauty of her art. “Frida” opens with candid black-and-white images of Kahlo in her element, while the voice of actress Fernanda Echevarría del Rivero (playing Kahlo) narrates, “In my life, I’ve only painted the honest expression of myself […] I paint because I need to.” This serves as a beautiful prelude to the documentary. Gutiérrez prioritizes Frida’s innermost thoughts and stresses the need for artistic expression, especially in times of physical and emotional pain. By focusing intently on Frida’s emotions during her life’s ups and downs, Gutiérrez helps walk the viewer through a colorful orientation of what motivates the art. Each direction the film takes is rooted in a necessity to capture Frida’s spirit and view of the world.

As the director and editor, Gutiérrez takes the creative risk not to rely on a third-person narrative for “Frida.” The collected archival material is intimate and comprehensive enough for a rounded perspective unlike no other. Various events in Frida’s life that one would read about – from a bus accident that caused her chronic pain (after which she turned to painting) to a rollercoaster of marriages and affairs – are given remarkable first-person context. The film smartly focuses on Frida’s personality within her life experiences, holding a kaleidoscope of her inspirations. Using the artist’s voice as a roadmap, “Frida” never loses sight of her internal world. Each frame comes alive with the fervency of a secret diary, its pages holding the weight of one’s world safely inside. 

From her wit and sharp humor to gender expression and forward-thinking depictions of sexuality, Frida’s revolutionary artistry transcends time as it does traditional notions of the early 20th century. Gutiérrez and an inventive team of creatives – including head animators Sofía Inés Cázares and Renata Galindo, as well as composer Victor Hernández Stumpfhauser – incorporate period and contemporary approaches that capture the feeling of timelessness. Very early on, Frida’s work is established as a catalyst for the film’s rich visual language and soundscape. The opening credits sequence blends modern abstract animation with lively experimental music. The decision to animate her paintings throughout is a gamble that pays off with context, just as the use of narration does. Having Frida’s own words accompany the imagery evokes powerful emotions behind her self-portraits and the paintings of those she loved.

The film sings to Frida’s tune, creating a visceral experience. The editing finds neat parallels between writings and animation; a fine example references an animated portrait sequence in which Diego Rivera’s face appears on Frida’s forehead as the narrator voices, “I love you more than my own skin.” Diego’s impact on Frida’s life and art is explored with colorful detail in a later chapter of the film, which looks at the dynamic of a woman living in the shadow of her male partner’s success. How did Diego’s affairs make Frida feel about herself? How did the foundation of their remarriage, for which Frida set boundaries on her terms, lead to her financial independence? The film insightfully explores their complicated relationship and the artistic context it provides. 

Frida’s tragedies in life are also reflected in her art; one of her most powerful paintings is “Henry Ford Hospital,” a 1932 piece of realism that depicts the grief and pain she felt during a miscarriage. The painting featured in the film shows her lying in a hospital bed while connected to various images, including a baby, a snail, and an orchid. In Diego’s words, in the face of hardship, “she will do something in art.” Building onto the weight of this piece is how the film uses animation to signify the vitality of art. Whether vivid colors, the abstract use of fluids (blood, water, paint), or the choice to animate only certain elements of a painting (while leaving the rest of it untouched), the visual language adds a textured layer of fluidity to the paintings. To this day, Frida’s work continues to move people, and the film captures that sense of relevancy without the necessity for modern footage.

In the absence of contemporary material, one often finds in a documentary (such as floating head interviews), “Frida” builds its foundation with a treasure box of archival videos and photographs. Black and white footage transports the viewer to early 20th Mexico and various neighborhoods of New York (including Harlem and Chinatown). The narration captures what places mean for Frida – from finding her rebellious spirit during the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution to observing how “high society people live the most stupid lives” during her time spent in the United States. The use of footage coupled with Fernanda Echevarría del Rivero’s narration evokes urgency and freshness, as though the viewer is experiencing these places alongside Frida in real-time. In addition to the narration, the overall soundscape of “Frida” experiments with texture to create artistic noises, like the idea of ash mimicking the sound of a dry paintbrush against a canvas. Plus, the sound of breathing accompanying some of the images builds onto Frida’s presence in those intimately photographed moments.

Colors also evoke the sensation of Frida’s experience as she paints. Yellow brings sun and happiness, as well as sickness and fear. Brown brings leaves turning into the earth. Cobalt blue brings electricity and purity. A significant part of the film’s visual language is using color as a form of expression. Splashes of different hues illuminate and give movement to elements in some of the black-and-white footage. The animation features vivid shades that speak to one of Frida’s most widely-shared quotes, featured in the film: “You [Diego] were called Auxochrome, the one who captures color. I, Chromophore – the one who gives color.” Each of her paintings depicts how she was able to communicate and stand out with vibrant colors. In the face of constricting measures, from patriarchy and female conformity to debilitating illness, her singular voice shines through unmistakably. 

Plenty of Kahlo’s depictions focus on the impact she has today, which can be felt in various forms around the world, from street art and fashion to merchandise. Director/editor Gutiérrez’s “Frida” marks the first time the iconic painter’s story is told solely through her own words. While the approach can become slightly redundant at times, there is ample beauty to be found in its abstractness and boldness. The film team’s extensive research to create an in-depth collection of Frida’s writings gives Gutiérrez the flexibility to play with a more personal interpretation. The director uses intimate brushstrokes to paint a portrait of a complex woman who was able to gain life through artistic expression. Frida’s iconic canvases are given remarkable context from which one gets to know the human being first and foremost. The film not only successfully brings new movement to her artwork but also unearths more of her sharp sense of humor and delicious vocabulary. From the visual and spoken language Kahlo left behind, “Frida” pieces together an immersive journey that respects what made the artist’s voice timeless.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Covers over 40 years of Frida Kahlo's life in nearly 90 minutes. Paints an intimate, philosophical portrait that lets the surrealist artist shine in her own words.

THE BAD - Some archival material feels underexplored and redundant in the film's narrative.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Documentary Feature

THE FINAL SCORE - 9/10

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Covers over 40 years of Frida Kahlo's life in nearly 90 minutes. Paints an intimate, philosophical portrait that lets the surrealist artist shine in her own words.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Some archival material feels underexplored and redundant in the film's narrative.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-documentary-feature/">Best Documentary Feature</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>9/10<br><br>"FRIDA"