The Personal Is Political in Frida, Naturaleza Viva

Para la versión en español, cliquea aquí


Frida, Naturaleza Viva (1986) tells the story of Frida Kahlo’s life in a non-linear narrative style. Starting at her death and bouncing between different time periods, the film takes inspiration from her paintings in order to tell her story.

Ask any American with some semblance of knowledge of Latin American culture and they’ve heard about Frida Kahlo. The unibrowed artist is plastered on every t-shirt Zara can produce when it comes time for Hispanic Heritage Month and even her image as a feminist icon or girlboss has been broadly praised by Instagram aficionados. Some Westerners have even seen the 2002 Julie Taymor film, Frida, which earned Mexican actress Salma Hayek her first Oscar nomination. Because of that, they know about her debilitating health issues and wild love life, and can maybe recognize three or four of her pieces. But all of these images, some more than others, provide a limited and palatable view of this complicated artist. Even America’s most complex depiction, Frida (2002) only sees Frida as an individual, not a part of a common political fight. This Frida is driven by psychological needs and her politics only exist in the context of US-Mexico relations.

Frida Kahlo Gift Shop Items

This is not an accident. A process of depoliticization of Frida began in the 1980s hand in hand with the politics of the waning PRI party and their president Miguel de la Madrid. De la Madrid presided over the country in the 1980s and saw Mexico’s inflation go over 100%, unemployment reach 25%, and the government default on its foreign debt. Compounding all of that, in 1985 Mexico City faced a devastating earthquake that killed thousands and his government did little to help. His only ‘achievement’ was guiding Mexico towards a free-market economy, culminating in the country’s entering into the North American Free Trade Agreement with the US and Canada in 1994. As Mexico’s relationship with the US grew, Frida’s image, not her identity, circulated across the nation. As feminist author bell hooks put it, “I was not excited when everybody was getting on the Frida Kahlo bandwagon… I encounter many dewy-eyed, young white feminists who worship her but don’t have any interest in that kind of work; they’re not interested in paying homage to her because they don’t understand her value.”

In the face of what would become a deluge of commercialization even from Kahlo’s own family who have now formed the Frida Kahlo Corporation for branding and licensing purposes, there exists one movie that respects her personal choices and recognizes their overall political impact. Paul Leduc’s Frida, Naturaleza Viva is a statement not only on Frida, but her country, and the political power of the gaze. Leduc doesn’t stray from her own politics and instead uses them to structure his film. Take, for instance, Trotsky’s fictional love letter to Frida which is narrated in the film. He tells her, “My dear Frida, I want to share with you some thoughts about the connection between genuine art and revolution. Proletarian art and the pedagogical use of art are not the only forms of revolutionary culture. The workers of the world are in need of what you can offer them.” Invoking the Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art, a thesis of Breton and Trotsky, he celebrates Frida’s artistic bucking of tradition. At a time when every revolutionary artist, including her own husband, Diego Rivera, saw the only true art form to be epic murals, Frida painted the seemingly non-political portrait.

Frida, Naturaleza Viva

Art is as political as it is personal. It not only validates Frida’s art but Leduc’s structure. Straying away from traditional narrative honors both Frida and her ideals. The film has an almost Buñuelian dreamlike, thematic structure, all of which serves to understand her identity, not necessarily her biography. In one sequence, we see Frida struggle with her various health issues. In silence, the camera zooms into the back of her body clad in a brace as she lies totally alone. We swiftly cut to Frida as a child. Alone, she happily pretends to be Charlie Chaplin and even imitates his funny walk. If we didn’t before, we feel an innate sense of tragedy for this girl whose world of possibility and whose freedom in solitude becomes hard to find as an adult. Along with this non-chronological storytelling, Leduc takes inspiration from Frida’s work by merging the real with the surreal in many scenes. When Kahlo gets her picture taken by a photographer, the camera cuts to a painting of her miscarriage and subsequently cuts to more surreal depictions of her health. It may not be real, but it is true, just like her art.

For Leduc, making a film about an artist requires that the visual informs the narrative, not the other way around. Each shot is framed like a painting and the story evolves from that tableau. Take the scene where Frida discovers Diego cheating with her sister. We see a beautiful woman’s back, the line of her body is not marred by chronic pain. She is surrounded by orchids and as the camera circles her we see Diego watching her. Orchids are also known as narcissus flowers, taking their name from the famous Greek story about egotism. The tableau is set. Diego’s loving look, his own ego, and the perfect female form all make for a striking blow at Frida’s sense of self before she even utters a line.

Frida, Naturaleza Viva

The structure of the film forces the audience to put themselves in her place. We go from seeing Frida as a figure on a slab, the pole from the rail still sticking in her body to seeing her screaming face in the mirror, forcing us to identify with her. In one second we look at her body as though she were a subject then as ourselves. The spectator becomes the artist. In one of the more visually dazzling scenes of the film, we see a woman posing for a picture. Surrounded by mirrors, the camera slowly sways through them, giving the audience every possible angle by which to gaze upon their subject. Leduc puts us in that position, not only to understand Frida but to question the position of the artist and subject in society. In this way, Leduc goes even further than Diego Velazquez when he painted the famous “Las Meninas”.

The famous painting depicts the young Princess Margaret Theresa and her maids of honor but with a mirror in the background reflecting the king and queen looking at their subjects. The work also features Velazquez himself as he stares at the viewer while painting a canvas. It asks us to gaze at the subjects while being gazed back at by Velazquez and assume the role of the king and queen via the mirror. It blurs the lines between subject and object. But it still maintains the subject stability of the monarchy. Focusing our mirrors on Frida, a marginalized subject, Leduc asks us to question the stability between object and subject.

“Las Meninas” by Diego Velazquez

Such an unstable image also requires us to view Frida neither as a saint nor a sinner. Leduc freely shows us the many contradictions that make the woman. She may tout free love and have affairs with women and men alike but she is crippled by her jealousy over Diego’s many affairs. Not only that but her political persona is equally challenged. As a political activist, she delivers pamphlets showing support for Sandino in Nicaragua, protests US invasions in Honduras, and plasters images of men like Zapata and Trotsky around her house. However, at times, she seems like a real outsider to the struggle. In one scene, Frida goes to a bar and finds herself staring at an indigenous patron. He notices, looks back, and asks “what”. It’s clear her gaze on the indigenous subject is one that is uncomfortable for them. She’ll never truly understand their struggle.

The instability and faults in her image disappear with the film’s ending. After a montage of Frida’s paintings, we see an unfamiliar face watching them and suddenly we see other faces as well. It’s Frida’s great exhibition, held shortly before her death. It’s a somewhat serious event until the bedridden Frida is carried in and a party begins. Leduc then cuts to a scene of Frida at a protest, this time sitting upright in a wheelchair. She dies shortly after but when her funeral procession ends, we witness her get up from her bed, completely healed. With the recognition of her pain, it suddenly disappears. She goes from a bed to a wheelchair to healed. Without the intertwining of Frida’s political and personal life and honest recognition of all her victories and failures, Frida can’t find contentment. It’s also a message to Mexico at large. Without real recognition of the country’s past traumas, no progress can be made. The only way to honor Frida’s image would be to view it at every angle rather than reproduce the same 2D figure on your water bottle.

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