Somewhere in Mexico, men carry a four-poster bed through a garden filled with cacti and monkeys. It is the opening shot of Julie Taymor’s four-times F-rated feature starring Salma Hayek as one of the world’s most iconic artists. Because tucked inside that bed is Frida Kahlo, who throughout her lifetime suffered various illnesses and injuries but became celebrated for her paintings, activism and individuality. Taymor’s film doesn’t shy away from Frida’s struggles and her fierce determination to continue despite them. But it also delves into the real spirit of a painter, and the politics that turn the tides of culture.
It’s no secret that the male gaze has plagued the narrative of women’s stories on and off screen since the dawn of cinema and long before. We’ve seen blatant objectification and depersonalisation of female characters to the point of lamps; ‘leading ladies’ reduced to failing the Bechdel test; and I’ll be lucky if I can go to any cinema without seeing a poster, trailer or film itself in which a woman is half naked – just for the hell of it. But I’m not here to analyse the blatant misogyny we know exists. Instead I want to look at how, as a by-product of the male gaze in moving-image industries and elsewhere, women have been shown to manifest power with their physical form. And how Taymor turns that on its head.
Traditionally, ‘strong’ female figures were seductresses who used their physicality to trick men who were thinking with something other than their brain, or old crones who ended up being far more powerful than anyone could believe. We can say pretty confidently that these archetypes are more than a little bit sexist. When we actively think of manifesting power in women now, most of us go to appearance and literal strength. Because for generations women have been somewhat excluded from the world of physical power for whatever reason, a quick nod to the audience to say that a woman isn’t taking any bullshit is to make her kick-ass, give her combat boots under her skirt, a kick to the groin of the man harassing her.
This is – fundamentally – great. I can’t explain to you what seeing Alicia Vikander with a damn six-pack in Tomb Raider, Tessa Thompson in her armour and flowing hair in Thor: Ragnarok, or Cate Blanchett in that velvet green suit for Ocean’s 8 felt like. A woman’s image doesn’t only come in one size anymore (white, skinny, long hair and ‘quirky’ jacket choices). When a feminist gaze tries to manifest power in on-screen women by reclaiming a body from male desires, it does so by proving the patriarchy wrong in its assumptions, and there’s a great deal of worth in that. But these assume able-bodiedness and still an overwhelming value on image. How can we manifest power in bodies that can’t fit into this?
Pretty early in Frida’s runtime, we see our protagonist jump onto a tram as it starts to leave. Bundling into the crowd, her boyfriend, Alex, argues with Frida about Marx and politics, but she is only half listening. She lets a woman in yellow with a baby take her seat, and notices a blue canary in a man’s hand. Gold leaf glimmering in a painter’s pack, and when he sees Frida staring he pours some of it into her hand while the driver honks and swerves around. Frida is standing with gold in her palm when the tram crashes, her face covered in a spray of it as she watches the wall come closer and closer. The blue canary flies away, oranges fall as glass smashes and the floorboards splinter. She lies in the cracked floor, metal spiking through her hip, covered in blood and gold dust. Just like a painting.
What follows is a stop-motion sequence with bone-rattling calaca (Mexican Day of the Dead skeletons) shaking their heads at vials of blood and a spinal cord as they take notes on her broken body. Something that has set Frida out from a lot of biopics for me is that it isn’t just a record of her life; it genuinely tries to replicate, honour and pay tribute to her work and culture. Past just recreating her art in the composition of a shot, it reproduces her style, her love of colour. Taymor doesn’t shy away from completely submerging herself and her audience in Frida’s heritage, of which the painter was fiercely proud of. When she visits America in the film all she can think is how different it is, and that she wants to go home.
So now that we’ve considered the female body ‘in its prime’, whether manipulated for the male gaze or reclaimed by a feminist one, what about the female body broken? Does that relinquish some of that power, if the body cannot stand on its own? Not to Taymor, nor should it. Kahlo’s The Broken Column renders her spine as a cracking pillar – an image that Salma Hayek recreates in the film – detailing the consequences of the tram injury where a handrail impaled her through the pelvis, fractured the bone and displaced vertebrae in her spine. The significance of the female body is all the more visceral after Frida’s miscarriage, as she sits in a hospital bed with her arm on a drip, her half-formed son in a jar of formaldehyde while she paints Henry Ford Hospital. It’s one of the most heartbreaking moments in the film, but Taymor isn’t here to hopelessly ruminate on trauma.
An abundance of strength is shown in Frida’s defiance of her disabilities. With Russian revolutionist Trotsky and his loyal walking stick in tow, she climbs a Teotihuacán pyramid, much to the surprise of their companions: ‘if no man can do it, why not a cripple?’. I don’t believe in talking about ‘conquering’ disability and illness like it’s something that will go away if you try hard enough – hell, if anyone had a strong enough will to magic away their bad health it was Frida Kahlo, but she was ill until the day she died. Instead, the ‘conquering’ she did was not of her illness itself, but her stubborn determination to live regardless.
And there is still physical power to be had in appearance and presentation. Right near the beginning, Taymor dramatises the iconic family photograph where Frida steps out in a suit, plucking a red rose from the garden as she comes to stand beside them. ‘I’ve always wanted a son,’ her father says with a chuckle. And after her disastrous fight with Diego, Frida shears off her hair in remorse herself and drinks. It’s a motif we’ve come to see as a rejection of femininity’s wounds, but also as a transformation towards a new identity – and there’s power in that. Then there’s the relation to other bodies. We can take this literally with sexuality and female power in that; who doesn’t love the revolutionist party where Frida takes a bigger swig than all the men and ends up dancing seductively with the gorgeous female host herself? But still, this is all too concerned with the physical form and beauty. Can we not find power past the body?
Because the ultimate way in which Taymor manifests power in her protagonist is her ability to communicate, not least through her art but her straight-talking attitude as well. The revolutionaries themselves are personally moved by her work, something all the more significant in a film that so passionately exhibits the activism and politics of its characters. If she can affect these elevated figures who in turn move whole countries to fight for what they believe in, then she really does have something to marvel at.
The ability to see one’s own experiences and present it visually – to show more than the body, but what’s happening internally as well – is where she is given power. Her style may touch on areas of aesthetic and anatomy, but her ability itself isn’t material and as such is a manifestation of power that we aren’t so used to seeing. All of which feeds into what you can’t possibly do a biopic on Kahlo and not fall head first into: the power of identity. The Two Fridas reproduced towards the end of the film displays the duality of identity, the many faces that women are rarely given on screen. When we depend on physical prowess to demonstrate power, we inevitably dip into a temptation to appease sexuality and the male gaze. By showing strength in internal areas, Taymor manifests a heroine who is powerful beyond the bounds of vision.
And with strong personalities comes strong independence. The closing sequence of Frida begins with shouting. ‘Give me back my fucking leg,’ yelled across a room to be exact. Finally given her own exhibition in her home-country, Frida demands her husband give back her prosthetic leg. As she begs her doctor to let her go from the bed she bursts into a coughing fit, and the decision is made. So Frida’s husband goes for her, talks much and says precious little. ‘I believe that never has a woman put such agonized poetry on canvas-’, but he chokes off as a four-poster bed is carried in, Frida inside and shaking her head. ‘Who died? Where’s the music?’. Placed down and face-to-face with a sighing doctor, she grins, ‘you see, doctor, I followed your orders. I didn’t leave my bed’.
For once, no one scolds her, no one objects. Instead they applaud and surround her with music and colour. Though bundled up in bed, drinking tequila (and promising she won’t drink at her funeral if the doctor lets her have this one), she is undeniably the centre of the universe in that moment. Her body and image, iconic and powerful. But her paintings and abilities, more so.
By Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy is studying film production at Arts University Bournemouth with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. If you can’t find her lost between the shelves of a bookshop you might be able to see her in a dark cinema if you squint hard enough. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and find her general ramblings as @thedaisydeer at Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.