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Any movie about the boundary-pushing photographer Robert Mapplethorpe has to be willing to transgress. Or at least to capture the sense, imbued in his every image, of breaching standards of decency and decorum to get at more sensitive truths. The first scene of the new biopic Mapplethorpe gives plenty of reason to hope that co-writer/director Ondi Timoner — making her scripted feature debut — has done just that.
It’s a seemingly innocent setup: Just a guy, the young Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith), standing in a room wearing full military garb, the muffled sounds of his company marching outside. Timoner keeps us in this sequence for a very long time, so that what initially appears serene and expository becomes something entirely other — discomfiting in all the right ways. Even if you aren’t familiar with Mapplethorpe’s photography, which ran the gamut from celebrity portraits to unflinching nudes (often with aroused genitalia), it’s clear that there’s something thrillingly perverse about this guy in this particular outfit.
A lot of it has to do with Smith, who moves around the room with stealthy sensuousness, staring intently out the window, then at himself in the mirror, and finally lying prostrate on the bed, his outfit undone to just the right come-hither-and-ravish-me degree. The character is casting off shackles, literal and metaphorical, as Smith is using the scene to fully inhabit his subject, to convince everyone watching that “Robert Mapplethorpe c’est moi.” That he is. This is, in abstract, a bold and brilliant performance, an act of possession, really, and Smith never personally steps wrong in the film’s 96 minutes. But his work, sadly, is continuously undermined by everything surrounding him, beginning with a script, written by Timoner and Mikko Alanne, that frustratingly sticks to the then-this-happened conventions of a standard biopic.
The story skips chronologically yet haphazardly between eras, beginning in 1967 as Mapplethorpe meets future punk rocker Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon) and they begin a tempestuous cohabitation at the Chelsea Hotel, ground zero for burgeoning artistic talent. From there it’s a succession of names and corresponding events: There’s Sandy Daley (Tina Benko), the Chelsea resident who gives Mapplethorpe his first camera. There’s David Croland (Thomas Philip O’Neill), the hirsute professional model who poses for some of Mapplethorpe’s initial images and liberates his homosexual longings. And there’s Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), the older art curator who becomes Mapplethorpe’s long-term lover and benefactor. Kudos also to casting Mark Moses, aka Mad Men’s abiding irritant Duck Phillips, as Mapplethorpe’s prude of a father.
If all these performers superficially fit their respective parts — Rendon, in particular, does a terrific approximation of Patti Smith’s breathy inflections — none of them is given, like the film’s lead actor, the space to create much in the way of a resonant character. There’s a degree to which that’s an apt approach, since Mapplethorpe was certainly a self-mythologist, the people in his orbit easily mistreated or discarded as his whims and stature dictated. Yet Timoner would need to be able to create a world in which these varied types could exist, and unfortunately the film’s low-budget origin (with a barely longer than two-week shooting schedule that certainly seems like it was rushed) undercuts that believability at every turn.
The exteriors of 1970s and ‘80s New York are primarily represented by awkwardly incorporated archive footage or a cramped establishing shot of a street with a period-era car or two (not to mention an atrociously composited background image, in one scene, of the still-under-construction Twin Towers), while every time Timoner cuts to an interior it feels like we’re on a spare soundstage as opposed to a lived-in locale. Not even the choice to shoot much of the movie on grainy 16mm with occasional super-8mm inserts helps with a lacking sense of verisimilitude. Mapplethorpe’s photo sessions, meanwhile, tend to be gracelessly visualized as Smith in one shot clicking the shutter on an offscreen subject, followed by a smash cut to the actual finished photo. The dissonance between the fictional and the real world — here as elsewhere, and despite Smith’s outstanding efforts — is ruinous. By the time the film reaches Mapplethorpe’s untimely end (dead from AIDS-related causes at 42, a posthumous, Jesse Helms-fomented backlash on the horizon) a provocative icon has been reduced to an innocuous nonentity.
Production Companies: Boston Diva Productions, Interloper Films
Cast: Matt Smith, Marianne Rendon, John Benjamin Hickey, Brandon Sklenar, McKinley Belcher III, Mark Moses
Director: Ondi Timoner
Screenplay by: Ondi Timoner, Mikko Alanne
Based on a Screenplay by: Bruce Goodrich
Cinematographer: Nancy Schreiber
Composer: Marcelo Zavos
Producers: Eliza Dushku, Ondi Timoner, Nathaniel Dushku, Richard J. Bosner
Editors: Lee Percy, John Allen, Ondi Timoner
Executive Producers: Peter Palandjian, Sam Maydew
Co-Producers: Amnon Lourie, Rosemary Lombard, Benjamin Schwartz, Linda Pizzuti Henry
Venue: Tribeca (US Narrative Competition)