The eponymous “Mapplethorpe” chronicles the adult life and artistic development of Robert Mapplethorpe, an American photographer who rose to fame in New York City during the 1970s. The photographer was known for his uncensored artwork, most notably his black-and-white portraits of nude men and women. Mapplethorpe’s erotic work is still seen as provocative but was viewed at the time of its inception as transgressive and at times too graphic for a conservative audience. The film “Mapplethorpe,” however, fails to show how subversive the work — and the man behind it — truly was.
Mapplethorpe has long been perceived as photography’s bad boy, and this understanding was not limited to the art world. Former Republican Senator Jesse Helms, for example, dismissed the work as “morally reprehensible” in 1989. An art museum and its director were even taken to court in 1990 and later acquitted on charges of obscenity following an exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s photography. Despite the lawsuit, both of these stories were relegated to postscripts of the film, flashing briefly across the screen after the closing scene, leaving the audience barely enough time to digest.
The only other indications of just how subversive the work was came in short sequences showing Mapplethorpe and his work being rejected by art galleries and the occasional inclusion of brief glimpses of his artwork on the screen, barely allowing viewers to see for themselves the graphic nature of his work.
“Mapplethorpe” was co-written and directed by Andrea “Ondi” Timoner, who is known for her documentaries and is the only two-time winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. Her directing of the movie was only slightly better than the film’s less-than-thrilling writing but still fell short.
For the most part, the film reduced the rise of Mapplethorpe to a cliche tale of a self-taught, starving artist becoming successful through his own determination, despite all of the hardships he faces along the way. The scenes where Mapplethorpe takes some of his most famous photos are oversimplified and underwhelming, giving the impression that Mapplethorpe created these photos without much thought or skill. The shock factor of Mapplethorpe’s work and creative process is reduced and made boring through the filmmaker’s vision.
Timoner shot the movie on 16mm color film, giving some of the scenes a grainy appearance that felt authentic to the time in which it was set and added some excitement to the otherwise banal and tame script. Furthermore, old film reel depicting iconic historic and cultural moments of the 1970s and 1980s was integrated with the contemporary shots. This choice, however, did not serve any obvious purpose to understanding the photographer’s journey and was more of a distraction than an asset.
The film, which begins in 1969 with Mapplethorpe dropping out of the Pratt Institute, a private art school in New York, also jumps forward randomly and awkwardly. For the first portion of the movie, viewers watch Mapplethorpe and his girlfriend, singer Patti Smith, struggle to make ends meet while living in the Chelsea Hotel. Their relationship falls apart when Mapplethorpe reveals his struggles with his sexuality, and suddenly viewers are launched forward to the beginning of Mapplethorpe’s fame.
Matt Smith, who plays Robert Mapplethorpe, offers some redemption to the film. Though he receives little support from the writing, Smith is able to capture Mapplethorpe’s charm and frenzied commitment to his work. Smith also does an excellent job showing Mapplethorpe’s mysteriousness, both through his delivery of lines and the way he carries himself. The best displays of this element of Mapplethorpe’s character are in the scenes where he interacts with his unsupportive and rigid parents who are so different from the photographer that it is almost comical.
Actress Marianne Rendón, who plays Patti Smith, also brings some life to the otherwise uninspired film. Her character, though underdeveloped by the writers, is charming and amiable. Although her role in the film is relatively small, she captures the attention and gains the sympathy of viewers.
The connection between Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith is apparent in the film, but unfortunately, the two are not written in a way that reflects their true relationship. Patti’s role is large in the beginning of the movie, but after the characters break up, she completely disappears until the end of the film. She is replaced by Sam Wagstaff, played by John Benjamin Hickey, the older, wealthy art curator who begins a romantic relationship and a professional relationship with Mapplethorpe. In reality, however, Patti did not disappear, as she also had a relationship with Sam Wagstaff. In fact, Sam Wagstaff financed some of Patti Smith’s own artistic endeavors. While films are not beholden to historical accuracy in the same way as documentaries, this plot change seemed to take away from the film’s story rather than elevate it.
The failure of “Mapplethorpe” to capture the complexities of these relationships is perhaps the film’s most disappointing aspect. With the lead actors’ strong performances not able to compensate for the movie’s flaws, the film fails to capture all that is cinematic — both personally and professionally — about photography’s bad boy.