Sketch Of An Artist

It's not hard to see why so many actresses were dying to play Frida Kahlo. The great Mexican artist and bohemian poster girl led a life filled with passion, pain, political fireworks and steely determination. The great love of her life, whom she married twice, was fellow artist and notorious womanizer Diego Riviera. She had an affair with Leon Trotsky and numerous lovers of both genders. Horribly injured in a bus accident in 1925, she lived until 1954 in constant battle with physical pain, all of which she used to fuel her haunting autobiographical paintings. And, if director Julie Taymor's "Frida" has it right, she had the most colorful wardrobe in the Western Hemisphere. Whether hiking atop Mayan ruins or putting the make on Josephine Baker in Paris, this revolutionary was always dressed to kill.

Producer-star Salma Hayek won the race to bring Frida to the screen, and she brought aboard theatrical dynamo Taymor ("The Lion King") to direct. Four writers are credited with the script. Mercifully, the movie neither turns Kahlo into a plaster saint nor a feminist victim. It's clearly a labor of love. So why does this chronicle of a passionate life refuse to catch fire? For all of Taymor's flashy embellishments--surreal dream sequences, constructivist collages come to life--it trudges through the Kahlo chronology with the dutiful step of a conventional Hollywood biopic.

It wasn't a bad idea to conceive of the film as an epic, complex love story between Frida and Rivera (Alfred Molina), but the passion between them is more rhetorical than palpable. There's something remote and stagy about "Frida"; though it was shot in Mexico, you feel as if the cast is just down there on a visit. And when Geoffrey Rush, in shaky possession of a Russian accent, strides onto the scene as Trotsky, the movie comes dangerously close to resembling a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

How is Hayek? She's got the look, the adventurousness, the seductiveness. But good as she is, she can only go so deep, and "Frida" could succeed only with a great actress (the young Anna Magnani?) in the role, someone who could take us to the marrow of Kahlo's demons and delights. Taymor and Hayak give us only the rough sketch of a wild soul.

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