As a die-hard fan of Patti Smith I was incredibly intrigued to watch the new Mapplethorpe biopic starring Matt Smith as the angular photographer. Their soul mate, coming of age story is one I’m familiar with, and after reading Just Kids (Patti’s 2010 autobiography) and watching the 2016 documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, I felt I had a pretty good idea of the life of the rebel artist.
Ondi Timoner’s Mapplethorpe doesn’t add to this history. If anything, it takes away the punk rock aesthetic and dilutes the relationship between the two in favour of presenting Mapplethorpe as a renegade queer artist whose downfall appears to be his non-heteronormative attitude towards relationships, making Patti appear like a footnote to his story and Mapplethorpe himself a 2D poster boy for aids era gay America. Marianne Rendón as Patti Smith is all wide eyes and biting lips, innocent to a point of irritating, which with the rich source material of Just Kids seems somewhat lazy and flat; not that she has time to create a character, as she serves only as an introduction to Mapplethorpe’s relocation to New York City and as a tool to expose his deviant queer lifestyle.
One positive of the film is Matt Smith’s casting as Mapplethorpe but the script betrays him, lacking the life and vibrancy you would expect when telling the tale of the Chelsea hotel dwelling artist. The problem with this script is one I tend to find with most biopics. It’s impossible to capture the nuances of a life within a 2hr max time period. Less weight is put on the interesting small moments that define a person and instead we’re thrust into the intensity of the common trajectory of the biopic. We get the innocence of youth, the downfall of addiction/exposure to a darker world and their eventual end, and this film hits these three points, very clearly.The film is peppered with Mapplethorpe’s actual photographs that break up the scenes and give some context to the various male models he uses. However, we also get jarring images of the photographer himself (and not Matt Smith), which takes you out of the film.
Considering the subject matter of Mapplethorpe’s images, the film seems to downplay the importance of the pornographic side of his career and the impact it had upon the art world. Instead its focus is on the fascination he had with penises (in a very muted way), relying on the shock value of the rarity that is a male member on a cinematic screen.
It’s clear this film was made earnestly, with everyone involved very much into their subject matter, but it lacks heart and depth. With the final scene of Mapplethorpe’s eventual death, I was left feeling like I know less about the man behind the art, as if the only thing of worth about Mapplethorpe was the challenging subject matter he left behind.
Signature Entertainment presents Mapplethorpe on Digital HD 23rd September