Want to know more about Diego Rivera? Check out Mary Lance's film, Diego Rivera: I Paint What I See
A biopic about Frida Kahlo was not a project that instantly
attracted me as a director. Most films on artists’ lives drown in
angst, grotesque behavior and impossible suppositions on how and why the
artist creates. On delving into the screenplay and the biographies of
Kahlo, however, I found a different kind of story that offered unusual
insight into not only the creative impulses of a truly unique woman artist,
but also into one of the most passionate and complex love stories of our
time. Another draw to the project was the character of Frida herself.
Contrary to popular theories that chose to latch on to the icon of Frida
as a victim, a St. Sebastian for the “feminist” movement,
I discovered an exuberant woman: humorous, foul-mouthed, erotic, tenacious,
fearless and entirely feminine without sacrificing a potent sense of self-determination.
Frida created herself as an icon with whatever means she had. She celebrated
her lament with humor and irony as she blended her physical and emotional
landscape into a way of living.
First, I decided to establish New York, and in fact what “America” meant to Diego and Frida, in a black-and-white photographic collage. Not having the budget to shoot in New York (the entire film was shot in Mexico) pushed us to be creative in the Frida style. With the help of Amoeba Proteus, a special effects company, we designed a scroll like Russian constructivist poster art, emblematic of the period. Frida’s scribbling as she orates her letter to her sister highlights the collage in the manner of her diary doodles. We used documentary photos as well as film footage of the actual trips they took to Detroit, for example, to create the breadth of their journey with minimal means. This collage technique was used in Frida’s painting, My Dress Hangs There.
In discovering through the biographies that Frida was attracted to the movies, especially the horror and comic genres, I decided to use a trip to the movie house to see King Kong as a metaphorical way of expressing her experience with Diego in New York. Diego’s conquering of New York as well as his subsequent demise after the Rockefeller mural disaster is enacted first in a fantasy invasion of the actual film, King Kong, where, through her imagination, she plants herself as the unwitting femme in the hands of the monster. Through this device we experience, through humor and irony, Frida’s ambivalence over the tremendous success and subsequent transformation of her husband in New York. Later, in Frida’s daydreams that were drawn from the two paintings, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale and What the Water Gave Me, we see the outcome of that New York experience via her singular imagination. As she soaks in her tub, a primitively animated vision of King Kong falling from the top of the Empire State Building completes the tale of Diego’s fall from grace. As Diego storms out the door, after a violent argument with Frida about returning to Mexico, we follow her eyes as they take us outside of their New York tenement apartment window. Hanging from a clothesline in the midst of a snowy, bleak New York City skyline floats Frida’s brightly colored tehuana dress. The surreal aspect of this vision is that the dress seems to be inhabited by an invisible but dimensional body, a reference, again, to My Dress Hangs There.
In essence, we have experienced aspects of three of Frida’s paintings as they played themselves out in her story while the actual paintings themselves will not make their appearance in the film until many scenes later, when Trotsky and Breton peruse the canvases in her studio. Hopefully, at this moment, the audience will see the paintings on a much deeper level having experienced the abstract seeds of their creation. Frida and Diego Rivera (The Wedding Portrait), Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, The Two Fridas, The Broken Column and The Dream are some of the other works that I charted during the course of Frida’s tale. Each was approached with a different style and makes its way into the film from a specific emotional event that serves as a catalyst. These events of her life’s narrative are a surface reality, barely hinting at a subtext far more complex and harrowing as revealed in the paintings.
Diego and Frida
The crux of the conflict, then, in this unusual love story
can be summed up in the concept of “loyalty versus fidelity.”
Frida willingly married a man whom she knew could not be sexually faithful.
She, instead, demanded “loyalty,” and he promised to deliver.
This subtle difference between these two principles is rarely delineated
in contemporary Western society, particularly American, where a presidency
practically fell to issues of infidelity. Frida managed somehow to deal
with Diego’s protean sexual appetite; she even took some of his
lovers as her own. But the question of loyalty was breached when it came
to Diego’s affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina. The relationship
was severely damaged, almost irreparably. And yet, the power of the Frida/Diego
story is that the true depth of their love managed to transcend the broken
promises, the numerous infidelities on both parts, the tempests, the separations
and ultimately a divorce. In the last years of Frida’s life, when
she was sick, bedridden and dependent on morphine—even then Diego
came back to her. They truly couldn’t live without one another.
We had ten six-day weeks to shoot the film, an exhausting but thoroughly exhilarating experience. The almost entirely Mexican crew was brilliant, hard working and, most importantly, fun. The actors who came from all corners of the earth were impassioned and talented. The post-production team in the editorial, sound and music departments delivered beyond my expectations. But it is Salma Hayek who made me truly want to do this film and whose performance and passion, both on and off the set so inspired me. Her grueling six-year saga of bringing Frida’s story to the screen is a testament to her vision, tenacity and faith that she could make it happen. I am proud to have joined her for the ride.
Excerpted from the book FRIDA: Bringing Frida Kahlo’s Life and Art to Film, Introductions by Julie Taymor and Salma Hayek, Foreword by Hayden Herrera, published by Newmarket Press, 2002 (160 pp., $35 hardcover, ISBN: 1-55704-540-2)