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Fiery death or watery grave?

About the author
Tamara Barnett-Herrin is a singer and songwriter based in London.
poster of Frida

Salma Hayek does not need a fake nose to play a poet. The woman who once caused a Hollywood executive to blurt, ‘a Mexican in space?’ when she auditioned for a part in a sci-fi movie, does not even need elocution lessons. She is Mexican already, you see? Unfortunately, this might immediately disqualify her from an Oscar for best actress on 23 March, however heartening was Halle Berry’s deserved win last year.

In Frida, Hayek becomes Frida Kahlo in the grand bravura style of Orson Welles as Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane and Gloria Swanson as herself in Sunset Boulevard. By contrast, though she has the makeup, the great wig, the great nose, the great accent, and all those long husky vowels, Nicole Kidman is lip-synching Virginia Woolf in The Hours. It is as much about her playing the role of Woolf as it is about Woolf herself, and it is a fundamental problem with this film.

The HoursA deflated loooking Virgina Woolf waits for hours
Woolf is the subject of director Stephen Daldry’s po-faced homage. She is played as a broken, ugly woman outside, and a passionate artist within, which is to say she is played tragically and melodramatically, deserving of our pity for the suffering she experiences and of our awe for the choice that she makes to die. This elevates Woolf to the mythical level of Woman Writer, thereby only succeeding in shutting her off from us as a human being and making her work entirely remote, even superfluous to the ‘real’ story of the film.

By contrast Frida, directed by Julie Taymor, gives us the life of the protagonist. Instead of elaborately masquerading as a Pioneering Woman Artist, Salma Hayek just tries to render us a living Frida Kahlo. This is no contrived thematic and literary structure into which characters are forced and doubled up. Frida is a biopic that lets its theories of creativity and domesticity ring out, in tune.

The Hours: it tries too hard, failing to make you care

Basing The Hours on Michael Cunningham’s book, Daldry invites us to follow three women through a few days in each of their lives: Clarissa Vaughan, a book editor in present-day Manhattan; Laura Brown, a housewife in Los Angeles in 1949; and Virginia Woolf in 1923 and on the day of her suicide by drowning in 1941.

Woolf is conceiving the plot of her novel Mrs. Dalloway - a novel which Laura reads obsessively. Clarissa and Laura are both, in a sense, modern-day versions of Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa nurses her one-time lover and lifelong friend, Richard Brown who is dying of Aids, while she prepares for a party she is throwing in his honour. Like Laura, she echoes the themes on which Woolf meditates.

Mena Suvari in American Beauty
Laura Brown, played by Julianne Moore, is a bored housewife template role. She is unravelling, indeed drowning – the comparison to Woolf’s suicide is made explicit by a shot which looks down on her lying across a hotel bed, as reedy, brackish water crashes out from underneath, surrounding her. It is a breathtaking sequence, reminiscent in tone and composition of Mena Suvari splayed out on the ceiling of Kevin Spacey’s mind in American Beauty, naked save for a billion rose petals. It is also one of the few moments in the film with real imaginative flair. So much else is damped-down and scared-stiff by Daldry’s overly prudent style.

As a result, the implied desperation lurking beneath the surface of suburbia is far more successfully conveyed in Toni Collette’s cameo performance as Laura Brown’s neighbour Kitty, than in the character of Laura herself. Kitty is all smile, teeth, lipstick. Sit her down at the kitchen table, however, and she disintegrates.

She is asking Laura to feed the dog because she has to go to hospital to deal with serious problems ‘down there’ which may be preventing her from having children. Five minutes of screen time is all it takes for Collette to give us everything she has got – from shiny, hard, superficial, bullying to nervous, fearful, ashamed, and finally ruefully reconciled. Laura Brown just sits there, open-mouthed. Then she kisses Kitty. Her son (later revealed as Richard Brown, the gay writer nursed by Clarissa Vaughan) witnesses this. Should we be interested in this lesbian kiss as a symbol of female intimacy and secrecy? Unfortunately, this is simply one in far too many moments of high emoting that gradually drain themselves of dramatic significance, cancelling each other out.

The only really sharp, poignant note is when Laura’s husband – John C. Reilly in a resurrection of the dope he played in Chicago, and for that matter, The Good Girl - cheerily recounts that he bumped into Kitty’s husband, who had told Mr. Brown that his wife was in the hospital for nothing more than ‘routine checkups’. But we know that Kitty’s problem is serious. It is a nice touch of irony in an episode of otherwise treacly high-melodrama.

Moore gives us a too stolid Laura. I found myself laughing out loud when she placidly prepared herself for suicide, so insipid was this crucial moment which certainly needed some guts. It is no better when she shows up at the end of the film as Clarissa Vaughan’s rival, after the suicide of her son Richard, whom it turns out - in yet another plot revelation - she abandoned.

Moore’s performance must be Daldry’s fault. Think of her great variant on the housewife character in Todd Haynes’ Safe, (and it will be interesting to compare it to his forthcoming Sirk homage, Far from Heaven, in which Moore again stars). By contrast, Daldry lets Meryl Streep take surefire aim at the character of Clarissa Vaughan. And Streep nails it, with the kind of spirited, spontaneous performance which, even after the Laura Brown mush, will have you sitting up and taking notice.

Far from Heaven
Far from Heaven

In her struggles to hold it together for a party, Clarissa reminded me of a funny, sad story Nigella Lawson tells in her book How to Eat – about dinner party guests on the fourth course of their lavish meal being horrified and embarrassed to hear the hostess hysterically crying over the next dish in the kitchen. Streep breaks so well, so realistically sobbing into her crab cake mix, it is a shame that her character is overloaded: so much information about her is thrown at us, so quickly, from so many angles. No wonder she is a mess!
Meryl Streep keeping it together in The Hours
Despite it all, Streep is good enough to get us half-way to believing in a conflicted and neurotic character like Clarissa Vaughan. The problem is, we can’t believe in The Hours. The merciless, stifled efficacy of David Hare’s script is partly to blame, which, like a clever thriller, allows itself no looseness, no lyricism.

By the last act you are simply hanging in there as the next thematic link unfolds, too numb to feel for the characters. The look of the film reinforces this reaction. The Hours was shot by the man who also lights Sam Taylor-Wood’s celebrity portraits, Seamus McGarvey. Its polished, glamorous look makes Kidman, Streep and Moore even more remote and two-dimensional. It is a real shame: because if anyone deserved your sympathy, these women do.

Frida: it heightens reality, bringing you closer to her

Frida Kahlo self portraitAutorretrato con chango y loro, 1942 by Frida Kahlo
Frida has no such problem of distancing. Frida immerses you in Frida Kahlo, and in her (very autobiographical) work from the first moments of this painter’s documentary. And then it goes one inspired step further, enclosing and dramatising the paintings themselves. Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair for example, will suddenly bleed into a shot of Hayek in the same pose on a set which replicates the framing and the angles. It is real, but not quite. By this time, we are wholly inside Kahlo’s life: so we know damn well why she has cut all her hair off...

Kahlo once said of the false impression created by those surrealists who eagerly embraced her as an exotic, far-flung exponent of their ideas, but whom she mistrusted (calling them ‘cuckoo lunatics’): ‘I never painted my dreams. I painted my own reality’.

Nothing could be truer of this film. Take a moment such as the dramatisation of Kahlo’s miscarriage and the painting she makes of this - it is subtle, agonising and perfect. Frida consistently delivers this cinematic version of magical realism to devastating effect. It brings the woman and the work into clear focus, making sure that neither seem overly distant or obscure.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, played by Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina
Then there is its hugely refreshing portrayal of Frida’s marriage to Diego Rivera. Brilliantly played by Alfred Molina, Rivera is a big wet bear, huge and ugly and incredibly charming. Kahlo enthusiasts often bang on about Rivera’s womanising and domineering behaviour. If you read Kahlo’s diaries, where Rivera is idolised on a sustained note of almost slavish devotion, it is easy to react adversely.

But Frida shows Kahlo writing those very same diaries, close to death, with Rivera aged and grey, nursing her (an accurate detail, well-documented by Kahlo’s biographers). The film depicts a love affair between two artists, managing their differences in order to stay together to survive. Kahlo’s gratitude to him is genuine, but also brazen, since she is about to die, and knows it.

This film does not try to whitewash the difficult, impenetrable aspects of their relationship. Pushed along by the fantastic chemistry between Molina and Hayek, it can afford to dramatise both the grim and joyful moments of a marriage beginning in naivety, tender and truthful, which journeys through Kahlo’s problems with fertility, Rivera’s countless shameful sexual betrayals, their separation, remarriage, and finally to Kahlo’s death.

Which is not to deny the far too many hammy moments in this film, including a lesbian tango; a cameo from Antonio Banderas, red-faced, drunk on tequila and defending Stalin; and last but not least, the happy menagerie of parrots, monkeys and peacocks which live in harmony with Kahlo and Rivera.

For some reason, Geoffrey Rush plays Trotsky with a terribly bad Russian accent: surely Hayek and Taymor could have found a Russian actor for this role. The script is full of soap-operatic clonkers (although there are four credited writers, Edward Norton, who plays Nelson Rockefeller Jr. in the film, is said to have written the final draft).

Shot by Rodrigo Prieto (who lensed Amores Perros, and more recently 8 Mile and Spike Lee’s new film The 25th Hour), the hamminess even extends on occasion to a magical realist colour filter that makes yellows yellower and blood redder than seems entirely necessary. Despite all this, Frida seduced me. Much of the time, with its frequent eating and cooking scenes (which do not trigger hysterical crying, or suicide attempts, like those in The Hours), it looks irresistibly good, mouth-wateringly reminiscent of Like Water For Chocolate.

In comparison with such seduction, The Hours looks manufactured and cynical. It is actually a ‘high concept’ film, because the decision to ‘uglify’ Nicole Kidman is - profoundly - a marketing calculation. Such lead actress uglification is guaranteed to generate immediate publicity - think of Renée Zellweger’s role as Bridget Jones, and remember how it was spun as a legend of dramatic weight gain and loss, as much as a brilliant comedic performance.

Dowdy genius: Nicole Kidman's range of expressions as Virginia Woolf is not vast

Casting Nicole Kidman has certainly sold The Hours on a spectacular scale. But it is lazy: she cannot really make it work. However diligent her attempt, Kidman fails to transcend the script and fully realise a character of such complexity. She gushes her crucial monologue, and limits her facial expressions to a studious, choreographed series of gazes and scowls. When she finally steps into the river, it is as if she is stepping off a kerb. It is bland because there have been too many moments of high concept emotion already.

The impact of the suicide is thrown away, lost in Philip Glass’s inflated soundtrack. In Frida, the climactic death scene is both an emotional climax and a resolution: Salma Hayek literally bursts into flames. This film has got heat and bravado, and its lead actress can carry it on her own shoulders – which makes it a great antidote to the weepy, winsome experience of The Hours.

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