Think “Robert Mapplethorpe” and whatever words come to your head will almost assuredly not match Mapplethorpe, a new movie starring erstwhile Doctor Who and The Crown star Matt Smith as the influential photographer. Even among the ranks of artist biopics, which are almost never as daring as their subjects, this film is timid. It barely feels invested in Mapplethorpe’s art, much less in trying to replicate its sensibility or to help an audience understand how he made it.
It’s common to pull out the criticism that biopics are like Wikipedia entries in cinematic form (and it’s been employed by others against this film), but one would actually be better served by reading Mapplethorpe’s Wikipedia page than by this film. The “Controversy” section is by far the largest part, and yet in the movie, the controversy around his work is relegated to a single scene with protesters in the background and some tidbits in the obligatory ending intertitles. In fact, set almost entirely in apartments and galleries, it feels wholly sheltered from any outside context. We know Mapplethorpe has become famous because of a news bite. We know he’s successful because he boasts about his latest big sale. We know he’s made photography into an acceptable fine art because someone else says so.
Co-written and directed by Ondi Timoner (generally a documentarian, this is her first fiction feature), Mapplethorpe skips through various episodes of the title character’s life, starting with him dropping out of Pratt and ending with his death in 1989. In one scene he’s introduced to a leather bar, and in the next he’s fully embraced the BDSM aesthetic, with no process of transition. To call its narrative progression perfunctory seems inadequate — at times the film comes across as almost outright disinterested. There are recreations of Mapplethorpe shooting some of his more famous works, like “Man in Polyester Suit” and a veiled Lisa Lyon, but no insight into how he considered his construction of these images.
For a film about a photographer who not just boldly but confrontationally explored the nude form in his work, Mapplethorpe is ironically rather meek. We see him give vague instructions to his subjects and then snap his camera, at which point the film cuts to a still of the real-world photo rather than a recreation. By invoking Mapplethorpe’s work in this way, the movie avoids having to actually show any penises itself. It is already highly noticeable (sometimes distracting) when any film has a naked character but uses careful framing, cuts, and sometimes props to obscure the “sensitive areas.” This goes double for a story about a man who had no such hang-ups in his own work. The only notable penis in this movie that isn’t in a real photo appears as a brief incidental detail in a post-coital scene.
Most tiresome is that the film becomes the umpteenth iteration of movies and TV interpreting genius as “being an asshole.” How accurate this is or isn’t to Mapplethorpe’s real-life behavior is beside the point. Tempestuousness is equated with creativity because the movie can’t be bothered with the intricacies of depicting creativity. Mapplethorpe’s rising star comes with an increase in his arrogance and callousness, and this is of course eventually tied to him contracting AIDS as his “fall.” It thankfully doesn’t quite go so far as to suggest this as some kind of comeuppance, but intentionally or not, this is yet another film that can’t disentangle queerness from miserabilism.
One sequence that sums things up tidily comes when Mapplethorpe meets his soon-to-be boyfriend and muse, Milton Moore (the subject of “Man in Polyester Suit”). Mapplethorpe has received criticism for his depiction of black bodies, but Mapplethorpe has no idea how to handle problematic subject matter. It largely sidesteps the artist’s enthusiasm for the black form, in fact, tossing off one argument in which Moore yells at him over it and then abandoning the subject. It has no sense of Mapplethorpe as a kind of predator, as a fetishist, as irresistibly curious, or any combination thereof. This is included simply because it’s one more box in the Robert Mapplethorpe checklist to fill in. One would be better served by watching a documentary on the artist, such as Black White + Gray or the recent Look at the Pictures.
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