3 mins read

Ondi Timoner’s biopic of the revolutionary and conflicted artist Robert Mapplethorpe has moments of vision and ingenuity but falls into the same trap as many biopics in trying cover an entire life in a limited time frame.

Robert Mapplethorpe challenged establishment views of the male body, art and power of photography, pushing the boundaries between pornography and art, while also balancing evocative imagery with the beauty of nature and black and white film. Mapplethorpe himself reflected his own art, a catholic boy from suburban America who was conflicted in the balance of evocative and boundary challenging visions with a background of restricted desire and control in his upbringing.

Portraying a man of such complex and divergent emotions was always going to be a challenge, but Matt Smith provides an outstanding performance that plays to the light and dark of Mapplethorpe and his relationships, alongside the trappings of success and every increasing risk taking as part of his art. Smiths performance gives the film gravitas but cannot save it from feeling rushed and confused in its core narrative.

Mapplethorpe never allows the audience to gain true perspective on the artistic impulses of the man, diving haphazardly from one scene to the next, providing little opportunity to gain insight and emotional attachment to individuals on screen. This would have been a stronger picture had it focussed on a shorter time period in the artists life, rather than attempting a full life biopic. While performances from the ensemble cast are solid, offering some commentary on the complex relationships Mapplethorpe had, there is not enough interaction and reflection to give voice to the important role they played in his life and career.

The darkness and light of Mapplethorpes photography also lacks exploration, not allowing the audience to fully explore the interface between the natural world and the human body in Mapplethorpes photographic studies.

Cinematography uses a mix of period super 8 film with 16mm, but never manages to truly develop a sense of place or time, with interior sets feeling bland, alongside a soundtrack that offers little to the narrative on screen.

Sex is explored freely, with Smith putting in a brave and bold performance in translating the desire, exploration and risks of Mapplethorpes life and photography. Scenes are intercut with photography that continues to shock and push social boundaries even today, but again the exploration of the societal response is lacking, never allowing the photography to speak to the boundaries inherent in a society of controlled sexuality.

Despite an outstanding performance from Matt Smith, Mapplethorpe fails to capture the artistic drive and impulses of Robert Mapplethorpe, rushing from one scene to the next in a haphazard manner, never allowing the audience too close to the artist and his work.

Country: USA 🇺🇸

Director: Ondi Timoner

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