"Mapplethorpe" Review: A Living, Breathing Wiki Page of A Film
The first time I became aware of Robert Mapplethorpe was during a lecture in college for a History of Photography course I took that semester. The images that our professor showed us were certainly something, and my fellow classmates had some opinions, but it gave a sense of showing the world what kind of photographer he was. Generally, biopics can go one or two ways. For some, biopics can be an enlightening portrait of the person the film is covering to the point that it shines a new light on them. For others, biopics can often feel rushed, like seeing a Wiki page come to light to showcase the greatest hits. In many cases, those biopics failed to bring up why the people were engrossing to begin with. Sadly, Mapplethorpe falls into this realm. For such a provocative photographer, this biopic fails to do him justice. Better yet, it fails to showcase why he was such a compelling figure to begin with.
This latest biopic from filmmaker Ondi Timoner, making her narrative directorial debut after helming documentaries like 2004’s DIG! and 2009’s We Live in Public, covers the life of controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith). From his early beginnings as a struggling artist to getting his hands on his first Polaroid camera, Mapplethorpe begins to find his voice photographing nude figures, the BDSM subculture, and still-life, while coming to terms with his sexuality. As his works begin to hit the nerves of certain groups, we see how Mapplethorpe continues to rise and become the photographer that you either like or hate before his death in 1989 due to AIDS.
On the plus side, it’s interesting to see how Timoner seamlessly interweaves Mapplethorpe’s actual photographs into the film, and the ways that the film transitions to the photographs was spot-on. The acting was fine, but nothing special. The soundtrack that was curated for the film wasn’t bad as well. There were a couple of visual flashes that Timoner and her DP, Nancy Schreiber, came up with that really worked for me. In particular, a scene with Mapplethorpe getting rejected after beginning his career and when they show his life flash before his eyes. If the film had a more of a visual style to begin with, which these scenes made evident it could have had, then at least it would have had some flavor to it.
Unfortunately, for such a fascinating figure, this is a dull portrait of a film. The screenplay from Timoner and Mikko Alanne, working from an earlier screenplay by Bruce Goodrich, never gives you insight about Mapplethorpe or what was going on inside his head, but just assumes that you already know. Since it feels like a living, breathing Wiki page film, scenes bounce around without any cohesiveness to connect them, and rushes through important events in his life. Plot threads are introduced that don’t get further explored like his estrangement from his disapproving father (Mark Moses). Characters come and go as the screenplay dictates, but I wanted to see more with his relationship with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon). Too often, the screenplay has that “been there done that” type of feel that we’ve seen from underwhelming biopics before.
Since the screenplay is weirdly constructed, there is no pacing, which makes the film longer than the 102-minute runtime it has. You also don’t really care for Mapplethorpe, or any of the characters for that matter, since there is no character development. While the visual style for the film gets better towards the end, the first two thirds is flat, and for the type of figure that Mapplethorpe was, you would assume that the style of the film would match his work, but that’s not the case. But hey, there’s a upside to all this, in that it became a fun game to see whether or not at a given time if Smith was using a wig or his actual hair, since it’s fairly obvious in some places.
Overall, I believe there’s a proper way to fully tell his story, but Mapplethorpe doesn’t cut it at all. It’s a misfire on all accounts that make the cardinal sin of filmmaking by being dull. By the time the film ended, I still didn’t know who Robert Mapplethorpe was as a person and what made him tick. If you’re interested in learning more, read up on him or look at his photographs, cause they tell you more about him than this film does. You don’t need to spend your money in the theaters watching this.