Director Ondi Timoner’s new biopic turns the camera on Robert Mapplethorpe, the artist who revolutionized art photography in the 1970s and 80s, raising controversy with his images of hardcore BDSM juxtaposed against tender portraits of calla-lillies and celebrity portraits. Mapplethorpe looks at the life of the artist from his relationship with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), his time at the Hotel Chelsea, fascination with gay BDSM, and the permutations of his art until his death at the age of 42. Through his images and relationships with friends, lovers, family, and ultimately to the art itself, Mapplethorpe attempts to elucidate a contradictory, contentious subject.
Matt Smith’s performance as the central character is Mapplethorpe’s greatest strength. He embodies the conflicts that the film lays out. He’s charming and funny, vicious and unkind, loving to his subjects and exploitative of them in the same breath. He toes the line between exploitation and appreciation, such that it seems he does not fully understand his behavior. As he ages and becomes ill, he delves deeper in the light and dark, becoming more demanding of those around him and crueler in his behavior. Smith’s physical investment in the role is almost Expressionist, recalling Conrad Veidt’s total embodiment of his parts. Mapplethorpe blends with his own images, pressed between the light and the dark, the violent and the tender. The film’s often spectacular cinematography lends itself to this portrayal, as the colorful vibrancy of New York in 1969 gives way to black and white palettes of the 1980s that finally wash out the central character, turning him into a walking specter. Smith forces us to acknowledge the brilliance of the artist and the gentleness of his touch while at the same time seeing his cruelty and self-interest. And the film doesn’t excuse Mapplethorpe’s behavior – it simply seeks to represent it.
But for a film about so revolutionary a subject, Mapplethorpe remains oddly chaste in its onscreen depiction of male nudity, homosexuality, and BDSM. While it doesn’t shy away from showing Mapplethorpe’s image, in effective intercuts of the actual photographs, it coyly cuts away from sex scenes, avoids filming Matt Smith (or almost anyone) in full body shots, and reduces Mapplethorpe’s friends and lovers in the BDSM community to barely realized characters. Surely these men were more than just images, either to Mapplethorpe himself or in their own right. Surely they had personalities, thoughts, experiences of their own. In the middle of the film, a friend tells Mapplethorpe, “They must really trust you,” but we never see how he earned that trust, how his friendships developed, or how he staged these images in the first place. The film’s unwillingness to truly engage with Mapplethorpe’s subjects, and thus avoiding dealing with its own subject, makes it feel slight – the people photographed become just images, body parts, and we never see them as full characters.
In fact, the entirety of Mapplethorpe is slight, avoiding too much investigation of who Mapplethorpe is or what his art meant, either to himself or to the wider culture. His relationship with Patti Smith flames out, and she almost immediately becomes a nonentity, a person solely there to drive him from one aspect of his art to the next. There are little indications of the artist’s psyche—he relates the conflict and symbiosis between his Roman Catholic upbringing and his homosexuality and interest in bondage, and more than once remarks that his art must be viewed as a totality, hardcore images as well as the more “palatable” flowers and portraits. The juxtaposition of his portraits of celebrities and still-lifes of flowers with hardcore images, his interest in photography “as an artist” that never extends to learning how to develop the photographs himself, the very light and dark of his images…all of them provide interesting fodder for an exploration of a deeply conflicted artist producing deeply conflicted art, yet the film never follows through on any of them, instead leaving the deeper themes at the peripheries, content more to delve into one man’s suffering than to examine his work. While I don’t think we needed an explanation of Mapplethorpe as a person or an artist—those are always pat and ineffectual, even in the best biopics—there needed to be greater exploration of what he meant as an artist, what his art meant to the developing scene of the 70s and 80s, what furor he caused. We are told he was revolutionary, but we never shown why.
In some ways, Mapplethorpe is as much a contradiction as the man himself, a film that wants to investigate both art and artist, and yet can’t quite come to terms with either. There is so much hanging at the peripheries, begging to be examined, that one wishes the camera would shift focus just a little, to look at those people, themes, desires, fears that made Mapplethorpe what he was. Maybe it’s impossible to truly reveal the artist through a different medium than the one he employed, maybe the art must simply speak for itself. But it would’ve been nice to see this film try.
Mapplethorpe is currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival.