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movies: Still Life

"Frida" is compelling, but this portrait of an artist focuses mostly on her life as a wife.

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Like Ed Harris' "Pollock," Julie Taymor's "Frida" is first and foremost the portrait of a relationship rather than an artist. Not that there's anything wrong with that, nor is there much truly wrong with "Frida." It is a well-told tale and a colorful valentine for Salma Hayek (this is definitely her best performance to date), and Taymor's visual style is often stunning.

Truly, my main problem with "Frida" stems not from what it is, but rather what it is not — an examination of the artist as a woman and a painter, rather than as one half of a couple.

Frida Kahlo, the famed Mexican painter whose work adorns everything from museum walls to tote bags, lived most of her eventful but all-too-short life in her native land. As a young woman, she suffered massive injuries in a bus accident (depicted by Taymor as a fevered but breathtaking gilt-edged dream, swiftly followed by a macabre animation sequence). That accident, we learn, began a near-debilitating round of operations, casts, stiff-boned corsets and endless, painful physical therapy.

At 22, Kahlo married the already renowned painter Diego Rivera. A May-December couple, they pledged their loyalty to one another; if not exactly their fidelity. Stormy and unpredictable, their relationship spawned a series of separations and reconciliations, affairs and reunions, as well as a divorce and remarriage. It came to an end with Kahlo's death at the age of 47.

"I suffered two grave accidents in my life," Kahlo once said, in a line Taymor echoes within the film. "One in which a streetcar knocked me down. ... The other accident is Diego."

Don't get me wrong, "Frida" is spicy stuff, and it's certainly understandable why Taymor and her screenwriters (among them an uncredited Edward Norton, who also appears in the film as Nelson Rockefeller) chose to focus on it. Charting the joys and heartaches of any two people is much, much easier than trying to capture an artist's relationship with her work.

Taymor and company's dramatic choice is disappointing, though, and, consequently, there are lengthy stretches throughout the film where it's easy to forget Kahlo is an artist at all. The result is that for much of "Frida," the painter's works are secondary.

But there's also much to admire about this oft-stunning biopic — not the least of which is Hayek's brave stretch toward the realm of serious acting. As Frida, Hayek seems to glow with the same intensity of Taymor's wondrous mise-en-sc┼áne. Whether bursting with joyous energy as a young girl or dancing a seductive tango after her marriage, Hayek acquits herself well. Hayek's brightest moments, when we can almost forget her limited range, come when depicting Kahlo's physical defects. Her limp is subtle, more of a hint of disability than painfully telegraphed deformity.

A behemoth when next to the diminutive Hayek, Alfred Molina captures the essence of the bearlike Rivera, effortlessly blending the artist's love for Kahlo with his callous thoughtlessness. Equally dead-on is Roger Rees as Kahlo's German-born father. Though his role is small, Rees's gives a gem of a performance, quietly keeping watch over his daughter through caring, gentle eyes.

And then there's Taymor's trademark visual verve. Drenched in bright flashes of retina-shocking color, Taymor's "Frida" deftly blends style with substance. Her recreations of Kahlo's paintings, though far too few, are simply stunning. In one, soaked in blue, Kahlo stares unblinkingly into a mirror; in another, her green Mexican dress hangs outside a New York window, as if a colorful flower that somehow finds a way to flourish among the gray stone fields of apartment buildings.

But the best complement for Taymor's vision as well as Hayek's bold performance, is "Frida"'s ability to compel viewers to learn more about the artist. And that is no small feat. **** S

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