Drew Burnett Gregory is back at Sundance, reporting daily with queer movie reviews from one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Follow along for her coverage of the best in LGBTQ+ cinema and beyond.
In Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X, her protagonist explains why she had to write a corrective biography of her enigmatic artist wife: “Now that Mr. Smith’s false narrative was out there and I was in our cabin alone, I had nothing to do but avenge him and his lies, to avenge reality itself, to avenge everything.”
I thought of this explanation while watching Carla Gutierrez’s documentary, “Frida,” a work that aims to tell the life story of one of the twentieth century’s most famous artists in her own words. With another feature documentary already released in 2020, a docuseries released just last year, and, of course, the 2002 Oscar-winning biopic starring Salma Hayek, it’s fair to question if we really needed another documentary about Frida Kahlo. But every life — like every story — can be altered by its framing. And Gutierrez’s reframe is one worthy of existence.
Using Kahlo’s own words from diaries, letters, interviews, and other writings, Frida has the artist narrate her own life along with the words of friends and lovers including two-time husband Diego Rivera. (All performed by actors, of course.)
The lack of talking heads is supplemented by visuals consisting of photographs, archival footage, and animated renditions of Kahlo’s paintings. While the animation is well-done, there is something that feels counter to the film’s perspective to manipulate Kahlo’s art rather than simply portraying it. Watching the film, I yearned for a more radical approach that allowed for stillness as we listened to the voices.
But the words themselves are excellent. Due to her self-portraiture and her tokenization as one of the few women allowed into the canon, Frida Kahlo the person is often flattened. Not here. The film displays her intelligence and poetic voice, as well as her day-to-day frustrations as person and as an artist — a woman artist in a male world, a Mexican artist in the US and France. She’s vivacious and despairing and annoyed and bored. The film doesn’t force her to always be Frida Kahlo, famous artist. She’s allowed to just be Frida.
And who is Frida? Gutierrez doesn’t shy away from her queerness — with sexuality or gender — nor does she reduce her communism to a brief mention. A lot of time is also spent on the accident that caused her to live with chronic pain. It’s not framed as inspirational or depressing — it just is. Every aspect of Kahlo’s life and worldview and art was shaped by being a queer disabled communist.
The best parts of the documentary focus on Kahlo’s time in the US and France, allowing her to express the absolute disdain she felt for the bourgeoisie and the rich. There’s an understanding that these spaces are required for success in the arts while also a relatable exhaustion at this requirement. French surrealist André Breton is not credited with “discovering” Frida’s work, but rather lambasted for displaying her art alongside random Mexican trinkets — as if her worth as an artist was dependent on her ethnicity as curio.
Centering her voice is also valuable in portraying her illness. There are moments of immense grief — especially related to her miscarriage — but mostly there is just the mundane frustrations of living with chronic pain.
And, finally, this approach is divine when Kahlo — and her lovers — are discussing sex. “It’s good to have sex even when one is not in love,” Kahlo says before detailing the sensitivity of her breasts. It’s delicious to hear about her many affairs with men and women from her own voice and from theirs.
Every year at Sundance, there are a handful of portrait documentaries that were either produced by or are quickly bought by major streamers. Many of these are straight forward portraits unworthy of their fascinating subjects. While Frida may be imperfect, I admire its ambition and its less conventional approach to form. I also admire its commitment to portraying a version of Kahlo more controversial than her iconography.
If she’s going to be one of the famous women in history, she should be famous as queer, as disabled, and as a loud and proud communist. That is the biography Frida Kahlo deserves.
Frida is streaming on the Sundance virtual platform January 25-28.