Image + Nation: Mapplethorpe

To kick off its ciné-création section, the LGBTQ film festival of Montreal presented the new biopic Mapplethorpe, shining a light on the photographer’s rise to fame last Friday December 1st, at L’impérial.  It also marked the first collaboration between the MAC and Image+Nation.

Although the movie’s intentions are very noble, it miserably fails to achieve anything, with the exception of a good performance by leading actor Matt Smith in the role of Robert Mapplethorpe. Odi Timoner’s first feature film has some interesting aspects, but mostly fails to live up to the public’s expectations.

Instead of focusing on one aspect of the photographer’s life, it goes through almost all his years as an artist, and by doing so, overlooks many important issues and characters. The movie feels fabricated, plastic. The edginess of Mapplethorpe’s photos isn’t, by itself, a good enough reason to make a film. But Timoner’s work doesn’t suggest anything else.

Since the very beginning of the film, I immediately knew it wouldn’t work. It starts with an awkward montage of archival images of New York (probably from the 40’s), even though the rest of story is set 30 years later. And after seeing a young Mapplethorpe in military uniform at the Pratt Institute, we quickly move on to his friendship with punk singer and poet Patti Smith, as they are taking a stroll down Washington Square Park. This is where the movie becomes problematic for me. 

I’m a great fan of Patti Smith. I read her autobiography Just Kids a few years ago. It was written, in part, to honor Mapplethorpe’s legacy. She mentions how they grew to love one another, and how they struggled their way into the art scene of 1970’s New York. In Just Kids, Smith emphasizes how they almost died of hunger and sickness at a young age, trying to make it big.

In Timoner’s biopic, however, it all seems too easy. Instead of being portrayed as the badass that she was, Patti Smith, played by Marianne Rendon, looks like a naïve and innocent little girl. Her relationship with the photographer isn’t convincing. It’s no secret that Smith and Mapplethorpe had a passionate relationship, but there doesn’t seem to be much chemistry between the two in the movie. 

When Mapplethorpe meets his first (male) lover and is introduced to “gay culture”, he immediately drifts away from the singer. We only see her again at the very end of the film, when he’s on his death bed. This seems very unlikely. It’s a well known fact that even after they separated, Smith and Mapplethorpe corresponded and saw each other regularly. Their love never really faded, according to Patti Smith’s account in Just Kids.

The other problem I have with this film is its inability to understand Mapplethorpe’s work. It is as if his bdsm and flower pictures just appeared, simply because he thought they were cool. There’s no real explanation of his artistic intention or process, nor is the movie interested in anything but the subversive aspect of his work.

Timoner’s aesthetic decisions are also questionable, as she couldn’t really convince us that we were in 1970’s New York (we see, for instance, a strange décor of the Twin Towers being built). The grainy retro images all shot on super 8 don’t necessarily add anything to the story either. 

Despite Matt Smith’s great performance (he is particularly convincing in the end, when the protagonist becomes all the more narcissistic and self-obsessed, afraid of death) and the rapid but moving ending, Mapplethorpe has unavoidable flaws. Even if it might be enjoyable for someone who knows nothing about the photographer, I think a biopic has a responsibility to tell the truth as it was, without sensationalism. I hope that for her next film, Timoner doesn’t miss the mark. 

Olivier Du Ruisseau hosts Friday Franco Show which airs Friday at 1:00 p.m