Here is an intense, almost painfully reverential film about Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist who – as this documentary would appear to suggest – has acquired the status of a modern saint. Of course, this is really taking a cue from Kahlo, who employed Mexico’s traditional style of retablo painting to make herself the subject of a self-invented form of religious iconography, backed up by her tumultuous personal life and dogged by ill health.
Anyone not particularly familiar with the chronology and detail of Kahlo’s life should probably seek out the more meat-and-potatoes documentary released last year; this new film is not aiming to serve as an introduction to the work so much as passionately communicate what it sees as Kahlo’s state of mind as portrayed in a series of key paintings. (To this end, Italian actor Asia Argento has been drafted in to speak eloquent to-camera links, endowing Kahlo with some latter-day connection to the #MeToo campaign.) Access to some of Kahlo’s personal possessions is provided by a lovingly glove-wearing Hilda Trujillo Soto, director of the Casa Azul museum (though I was somewhat taken aback when she started rooting around inside the casket containing Kahlo’s ashes to display her shawl, placed there by husband Diego Rivera).
In some ways, this is a refreshing change from the timeline and talking heads approach of your standard visual arts documentary, but it’s fair to say that this emotionally impressionistic work doesn’t help itself, muddying the waters as it cuts away to symbolic sequences (girl in white shift dress sprinting along an underground tunnel, costumed Aztec dancers doing ritual performances etc). But it does draw together key themes in Kahlo’s work: the drama of her physical pain, her sense of theatre, and her ability to transmute gruesome anatomical detail into symbolic architecture.