Director Ondi Timoner’s feature film debut depicts the life of artist Robert Mapplethorpe, a simultaneously revered and reviled photographer known for his celebrity portraits, pictures of flowers and depictions of the hardcore gay BDSM scene. His art was striking and unapologetic, subjects lit in bright white light set in front of deep black backgrounds.
Matt Smith’s performance shines as the titular photographer. He truly throws himself into the role of portraying the famously mercurial photographer. Smith embodies the alluring energy that made Mapplethorpe such an irresistible person, but also shows the repression, anger, and emotional distance that made him such an enigma. However, Matt Smith can only do so much within the confines of the script, and his performance feels a little flat as a result.
The movie lingers on his art, showing multiple scenes of Mapplethorpe shooting and posing the models that would become some of his most famous works. This emphasis on the art soon works against the movie, turning the film into a slideshow of his most famous work without any insight into the artist’s thoughts, inspirations or motivations.
Marianne Redon gives an intriguing, if safe, performance as punk icon Patti Smith, who Mapplethorpe dated in the early stages of his career. Doe-eyed, with tousled hair, she shows Patti as young artist, caught between wanting to live a stable life and wanting to create. The chemistry between her and Smith is palpable. This chemistry is missed sorely in the depiction of Mapplethorpe’s other relationships- instead of passionate and all consuming, Smith appears hesitant and a little scared.
This hesitancy towards sex is a common theme in the movie. Even though the film is about a photographer who is mainly known for capturing graphic sex acts, the film takes an almost prudish approach to the subject. Gay BDSM clubs are dark and hazy, and the camera takes extreme care to never stray from Mapplethorpe to any of the background acts. In the numerous post and pre- sex scenes in the film, there is care to never show Mapplethorpe engaged in sex. It’s strange that a movie with so many gratuitous shots of penises and nude bodies would be so afraid of showing the act itself.
The film also shied away from any real discussion or criticism of Mapplethorpe’s work. Robert Mapplethorpe was criticized throughout his career and after his death for his fetishistic view of black men. The movie addresses this in an argument between Mapplethorpe and one of his model-turned-lovers, Milton Moore, but then buries the issue, instead showing Mapplethorpe shooting a parade of nameless black models. Milton Moore himself is reduced to a shadow, while in life he was one of Mapplethorpe’s muses who he shared a long relationship with.
All the people in Mapplethorpe’s life get this treatment. For example, if not for a throw away shot of a magazine cover, one would never know that Mapplethorpe’s ex-girlfriend, shown in the beginning of the film, was the punk icon Patti Smith. This is true of all of the colorful characters who inhabited Mapplethorpe’s life and the art scene of 80’s New York.
The film plays more like a Wikipedia article than a life story. Director and screen writer Ondi Timoner leaves out most of the things that made Mapplethorpe so iconic- the vicious backlash against his photographs, as well as his AIDs advocacy. Robert Mapplethorpe’s art went before a court in Cincinnati on obscenity charges. Senator Jesse Helms famously brandished his art in front of Congress, crying, ‘look at the pictures!’ but none of this is included, instead relegated to a sentence before the credits roll.
‘Mapplethorpe’ leaves Robert Mapplethorpe the man as flat and two dimensional as the paper his photographs are printed on.