After years of false starts and delays, the portrait of artist Frida Kahlo that has come to the screen is less a movie about painting than one about paintings. At regular intervals in the intermittently ornate "Frida," the action pauses just long enough for the defining personalities and elements of Kahlo's turbulent life to converge into three-dimensional replicas of her greatest works. They're the most beautiful wallet photos a dead Mexican surrealist could ask for.
Don't expect the moment-of-inspiration melodramatics of a "Pollock." Showing how Kahlo (Salma Hayek) funneled her experiences into her art is a literal, surface proposition for director Julie Taymor ("Titus," Broadway's "The Lion King"), who provides handsome visual distraction as her four scriptwriters cast about for a dramatic thrust. "Frida" is the story of a woman who had to be herself, but the movie can't choose between motivational mountains for her to climb. Is the central theme Kahlo's tempestuous marriage(s) to muralist/mentor/revolutionary Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), who she considers her soul mate despite his incessant womanizing? Or is it her debilitating 1925 bus accident, whose consequences the movie plays up and ignores as desired? (In this story arc, Taymor's love of beauty reaches foolish proportions: Our heroine emerges from months in a body cast bearing a torso that's as delectably rounded as a fresh peach. Atrophied tissue, one assumes, doesn't photograph well.)
Much is made of Kahlo's general iconoclasm, but we're never sure how much of it is self-directed and how much is the simple consequence of tagging along with a series of politically minded men. Just as puzzling is her bisexuality, visited principally as an excuse for a steamy dance scene between Hayek and Ashley Judd (as photographer Tina Modotti). When Kahlo and Rivera provide asylum to the doomed Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), the film threatens to become a game of "Who will Frida sleep with now?" It's a question that proves as difficult to answer as "Why?" (An easier line of inquiry might be "Why not?")
No, a clearly delineated focus is not among Frida's strong suits. What it does have is a sterling performance by Hayek, who exhibits an insatiable artistic curiosity the script barely stoops to explain. Molina's Rivera is good fun, and the evergreen Edward Norton has a fine supporting turn as Nelson Rockefeller, who tangled with Rivera over a mural he hired the artist to paint inside New York's Rockefeller Center. There's also an Antonio Banderas cameo of the best kind, i.e., short.
If we leave the theater feeling that we haven't gotten to know these folks, it's a failing that extends all the way up to the title character. Who were you, Frida Kahlo? In assuming that one picture is worth 1,000 words, Frida never paints a satisfactory answer.