Sundance Review: Frida Expresses Frida Kahlo's Inner Life
Documentary gives a new perspective on her well-known story
By Richard Whittaker,
10:00AM, Wed. Jan. 31, 2024
Some artists choose to be enigmas, even to themselves. But others are an open book: in the case of revolutionary – in many senses of the word – Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, quite literally.
Her life, both inner and outer, was recorded in her 170-page illustrated journal – more a memoir, really – written in the last 10 pain-wracked years of her life and through her tempestuous relationship with her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. Yet she also looked back on the events that lead her there: to her tortured relationship with her deeply Catholic mother, her utter adoration of her atheist photographer father, to medical school where she flaunted the rules about what a woman was and was not supposed to do, and to the trolley crash that shattered her spine and changed her life from the healing arts to the arts.
It's that journal that serves as the backbone of Sundance-selected documentary Frida, the directorial debut of RBG and Julia editor Carla Gutiérrez. Yet it's not just the journal. Gutiérrez uses archive footage and photos, accompanied by narration taken from Kahlo's journal by Fernanda Echevarría Del Rivero, and supplemented with anecdotes and memories from those who knew her.
Gutiérrez, who took the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award home from Park City for her work here, delves deeply into Kahlo's marriage with Rivera. Moreover, she implicitly tackles an inherent difference in their art: he specialized monumental works, meant for public spaces, hers was smaller, more intimate, and more introspective. Indeed, they were more for her than anyone else, until the couple's brief divorce lead to her embracing financial and artistic independence.
But the challenge for anyone tackling Kahlo is that she is such an open book. It feels like there is no enigma left, so for any work on her to not feel like a repetition it will be in the execution, not the revelations. So it's in those animated amplifications of the illustrated journal that Frida is arguably at its most fascinating, more so than when Gutiérrez does the same for her more famous, larger works. In part, it's because it contains quickly sketched, more fluid versions of themes and images that are familiar from those bigger pictures, of veins and vines and broken columns.
But while Frida is intriguing, and undoubtedly a good primer to the life, mind and work of the artist, it's still a little overshadowed by Julie Taymor's visually enthralling and Oscar-nominated Frida, and not as structurally daring as as Ken Mandel's hybrid docudrama Frida Kahlo: A Ribbon Around a Bomb. Keeping the words of Kahlo and Rivera in the original Spanish adds a certain immediacy, but that narration is not always quite so effectively applied. American newspaper reports are recited in a ridiculous fake '30s radio voice (you know the one), and why exactly are the words of French poet André Breton and Belgain surrealist René Magritte presented in thickly-accented English?
Most disappointingly, Gutiérrez is so interested in using Kahlo's work for visual insight into her thoughts that it almost becomes peripheral. The 1940s – her most prolific decade as an artist, and by far her most commercially successful because she was actually selling her art – is a blip, and there's no sense of her evolution as an artist or a person. Somehow, Frida is a still life rather than a portrait.