Mapplethorpe is a biopic of American photographer and artist Robert Mapplethorpe. If you’re not familiar, Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989, was a controversial artist whose work often centered around themes of homoeroticism and S&M. It’s a fact that the film’s marketing materials chose to focus on, as its one-sheet is a gloriously posed male crotch, clad in leather pants festooned with an easy access hatch.
Mapplethorpe was, and is, one of the most famous 20thcentury photographers, perhaps of all-time. The film offers a granite performance from Matt Smith and intriguing hybrid reality editorial choices, but few insights into the artist or the deeper motivations behind the art. It’s a straight forward recreation of the known blurbs of Mapplethorpe’s life, and as such, art fails to imitate life.
Director: Ondi Timoner
Release Date: March 1, 2019
The film opens with a young Mapplethorpe in a room, alone and in uniform, a reference to a brief ROTC stint while he attended the Pratt Institute. It’s clear he doesn’t take the role too seriously. Predominantly because there are clearly military drills happening outside his window, and based on his appearance, he might be a part of them, but he’s playing hooky, or just being hooky. He spends some moments smoking, lounging on his bed, and admiring himself in the mirror while adjusting his clothes. Enjoy any of those self-absorbed motifs? Wonderful, because they’re all reoccurring.
Throughout Mapplethorpe, two things come to singularly define the portrayal of the artist: a commitment to creating art that’s nearly all-consuming, and a commitment to himself and creating himself. Matt Smith’s portrayal of these passions is phenomenal. One can see why he was chosen to become the Eleventh Doctor on Doctor Who as a relatively unknown 26-year-old actor. Portraying Mapplethorpe effortlessly across three decades, he creates one of those characters that runs the risk of replacing the real person with the facsimile in the viewer’s mind. Smith is this Mapplethorpe for 102 minutes.
As good as any one actor can be in any single performance, the success of the performance is still limited by the material they’re working from, and here, the script does Smith no favors. There are many moments when I found myself wondering about the why; what motivates the man. As Mapplethorpe seemingly absconds from college and his military obligations, he meets up with fellow artist and singer Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón in a strong turn), and galvanized by a mutual attraction, the two soon barter their way into better living accommodations by offering Mapplethorpe’s art portfolio as collateral in a hip hotel, promising that one day soon they’ll be so famous that the artwork is inherently more valuable than the lodging it secures.
Smith soon departs, after discovering evidence that Mapplethorpe’s sexual interest may lie in realms outside the female one, and from then on it’s a series of pursuits of art and sex (the lines blur throughout), buoyed by a relationship with art collector and patron-lover Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey). Wagstaff provides the younger Mapplethorpe with a studio, better camera, and social connections. He also provides Mapplethorpe guided vision to pursue more. But that’s just a mentor helping a mentee; an older, more worldly lover guiding the younger, it is not an explanation for what makes Mapplethorpe tick.
There are allusions to a Catholic upbringing under the icy visage of a stern father figure who seems to have trouble accepting anything that doesn’t fit a formula of normal or historically tried-and-true pursuits, yet these references aren’t explored and seem archetypal in their use, rather than revelatory as one might hope in a biopic about such a controversial figure. OK, so Mapplethorpe wants to be famous, but so does everyone else. Why? What drives him outside of self-obsession that fame will fan? It may be that nobody actually knows so the film doesn’t attempt to answer these motivations. Mapplethorpe died from HIV/AIDS at the age of 42 and left no memoir hinting at his inner-workings.
So instead, director Ondi Timoner relies on what does exist, archival footage of period New York City and the vast expanse that is Mapplethorpe’s photographic work. Both are intercut to great success, highlighting the feeling of being transported back in time to a period where homosexuality was not nearly as accepted as it is today and explicit depictions were more akin to pornography than art. One of the more rewarding directorial choices in this biopic occurs in behind the scenes stretches showing Mapplethorpe composing his photographs. These are then intercut with stills of the actual photography the recreated shoots delivered. It’s an old movie trope to do this with fake stills demonstrating what a fake photographer (or person with a camera) is capturing, but rarely is it used to merge the fictional and the historical.
At other times, Timoner simply cuts away to display works by Mapplethorpe thematically appropriate to the moment in the film, dictating his efforts by the results. And here, in spite of our desensitized culture, some of Mapplethorpe’s reputational penchant for shock may still deliver as several of his most explicit photographs are portrayed with nothing held back. Sure, any one of us can access the spread-eagle spectrum of porn on our phone at any given moment, but I’m wagering that the majority of us still aren’t viewing a man with a bullwhip (handle in) protruding from his bare ass. Not to say that you haven’t or wouldn’t, but I’m playing the odds here.
That’s just about the only spicy meatball you’ll find though. Despite some of the subject matter, the film progresses from scene to scene with little exuberance outside of that delivered by Smith as he finds himself again and again compelled to make a photograph or to convince someone else to help him make one. He sees beauty or the unusual and he must capture it. Again, we’re viewing the 60s, 70s, and 80s here, these were periods of cultural unrest, upheaval, and change. We’re seeing change force-fed to the American mainstream via graphic photography, and yet it almost comes off as a slog for any already familiar with Mapplethorpe the man, his work, or his story.