Directed by Ondi Timoner.
Starring Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, Brandon Sklenar, McKinley Belcher III, Mark Moses, and Hari Nef.
A look at the life of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe from his rise to fame in the 1970s to his untimely death in 1989.
Not to drag Bohemian Rhapsody through the mud some more (an entertaining film but definitely not one that does justice to Freddie Mercury), but during the early stages of viewing Mapplethorpe, it felt refreshing watching a biopic about a famed artist struggling with their sexuality that, for lack of a better term, embraces the gay. You’re going to see a lot watching Mapplethorpe; everything from nude men of multiple races, various erotic poses (many of which dabble in BDSM culture) and some things in photographs you probably wish you had never seen (fists professionally and artistically captured inside of a certain hole for starters), but all of which deserve applause for making the final cut.
Robert Mapplethorpe (played by Matt Smith with a troubled, ignorant, and rude but ultimately boundary-pushing vibe that he nails) was a provocateur with his black-and-white Polaroids walking the line between mostly male pornography and tasteful homoeroticism at its limit, photographing everyone from close friends, would-be models, and widely known celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger. For whatever reason though (and I say that because after doing some quick research, I don’t really see much controversy surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe), director Ondi Timoner (who also co-wrote the script which is actually based on another script) depicts him as an unlikable and practically irredeemable jerk. With an urge to fetishize black people, Mapplethorpe also calls his subjects the N-word in bed, none of his actual relationships (homosexual or late 60s/70s companionship with Patti Smith are written with any depth), and he kind of just showboats around like an entitled asshat.
Naturally, his treatment towards others only worsens with fame (he starts doing lines of coke while mentoring in his own brother, who he will not allow using the family name during show productions), yet when the inevitable ending comes as a result of his AIDS, we are supposed to care? His harsh personality should be forgiven because the pre-credits facts tell us he started a major organization benefiting the research of AIDS? Keep in mind, this is a generous gesture that doesn’t actually happen in the movie, because apparently the film is too centered on presenting Mapplethorpe as so much of an asshole that there is no room to present him as a complex human being that was also capable of good.
Far more unforgivable are the liberties that were taken with Mapplethorpe’s life (which is a very odd creative decision for a filmmaker most known for documentaries). Falling into the largest cliché there is for LGBTQ narratives, Mapplethorpe actually rewrites history turning Patti Smith (strangely, I’m almost positive the film never mentions her music career once) from his greatest confidant and first partner to a woman that simply walked out on him after finding out he was a closet homosexual (or maybe he was bisexual and genuinely made love to her. It’s difficult to tell considering the movie spends so little time detailing the relationship, that one of the film’s first scenes is them meeting in the park subsequently establishing them as living together two minutes later without an explanation) to create some weak drama and a boring resentment arc for his character. In actuality, they remained friends until his death.
Even the romance subplot with his longtime partner Sam simply lacks intrigue. Part of the problem is that at least 75% of Mapplethorpe is obsessed with photoshoots and racy imagery, which is fine (and they are wisely stylistically depicted as photographs by cutaways following each snapshot) but does not do much to elaborate on Robert’s mindset. His life gradually fills up with excessive debauchery, failing to get to the core of who he is as a person. Maybe he really was this much of a jerk, but I also don’t buy for a second that he was as uncaring and unsympathetic as he is portrayed here; nothing adds up juxtaposing with reality with fiction. It’s a rise and fall picture that gives you no reason to care about the rise or the fall.
Matt Smith is giving it his all here (those of you that have a horny crush on him are going to want to watch this regardless of how disappointing it is just for his commitment to the sexual material), but Mapplethorpe (the film and historical figure) are led astray by dead-air direction, poor characterization, and baffling real-life changes that result in clichés and boredom. Even looking at all of the nude imagery gets tiring after a while. If you actually want to learn about Robert Mapplethorpe, I suggest you do your own research because this film is not only a sham, it’s also boring and employs trope after trope. The LGBTQ community, and obviously Robert Mapplethorpe, deserve better, no matter how freely and casually the filmmakers are willing to throw up some BBC on the screen or how game Matt Smith is to make out with any of his subjects.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com