‘Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut’ Just Can’t Capture the Spirit of America’s Most Subversive Artist
Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut doesn’t fix the underlying issues of Ondi Timoner’s Matt Smith-anchored biopic of the infamous photographer. It still falls prey to the shortcomings of nearly every filmed biography in existence; and, as noted upon its official 2018 release, despite the S&M demimonde that the photographer documented in lurid, loving detail, it’s hamstrung by its straightforward narrative and reductive psychology. But if you have an interest in the artist, and his well-known circle of contemporaries (especially his relationship with the iconic rock artist Patti Smith), Timoner’s full cut of her film has enough to recommend it.
“I thought of bringing this mercurial figure to the screen in a way that was really engaging in this kind of unfolding adventure of this really imperfect life in the perfect frame,” the director has said of Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut. “The dichotomy and the conflict in that, along with the role the Catholic church had to play and the imagery and how all of that came to be, it would be something that would help people to become who they truly are. And inspire more artists to come up in this world as well as more people to come out and to feel accepted. He really pushed the boundaries of what we understand to be ‘fine’ art and also of what we understand to be acceptable in our culture. I thought it was a really important story to tell and I wanted to make a scripted film to bring him alive.”
Though the British actor Smith landed the role of Robert Mapplethorpe before shooting his two-season arc on Netflix’s The Crown, the role feels like a liberation. In the early years, he nails Mapplethorpe’s coiled sensuality, at times looking like a pre-Raphaelite angel beneath his crown of brown tendrils. We see him move from mixed media work — much of it done while cohabitating with Patti Smith — towards photography, first via Polaroids and, as he comes to terms with his burgeoning sexuality, in more formal studio settings.
Timoner (and the Mapplethorpe estate) are generous with his artwork, though the sex scenes of the film often come off as perfunctory, bloodless. As much as I disagree with our current mania for having gay actors portray gay characters, it would have helped here. (Matt Bomer, with the right styling, might have been a good choice.) Smith — the actor — may be able to portray desire, but it’s hard to believe that his Mapplethorpe really wants that dick (or that one, or the next one, etc.). He’s not grasping for satisfaction, exploration, orgasms: he’s hitting a mark. Yet when he sublimates those urges behind his camera, Smith is in complete control of the character.
Sex, in the world of Robert Mapplethorpe, is always better with a third partner: his camera. Those Polaroids are the proto-selfies. Matt Smith doesn’t quite impart to us what made this photographer the artist he became (and neither can Timoner’s screenplay, co-written with Mikko Alanne and based on a screenplay by Bruce Goodrich), but you never doubt that you’re watching a photographer at work.
Timoner’s work as a documentarian guides her direction here — the decision to shoot in 8mm and 16mm, and color-coding various segments, recreates the ’70s/’80s timeframe the film covers (all lighted with unfussy precision by Nancy Schreiber). The segments between Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón) are nice, though dull (I suppose we will have to wait for the film adaptation of Just Kids to get our fill of Patti). The family dynamics between Robert and his parents are nothing special. Dad is a hardass, controlling, judgmental douche. Mom loves her son but falls in line with her husband. The sections with his brother Edward (Brandon Sklenar) embody everything you need to know about the Mapplethorpe family (and could supply fantastic subject matter for a future take: both brothers became photographers despite their father’s objections). And the death bed scenes, extended from the original cut, are brutal and touching. It’s hard to imagine why any of it was originally excised.
Regardless of which version you watch, you won’t necessarily understand the photographer any more fully. He’s as mysterious and ambiguous in death as in his life, with the only true anchor points the work he left behind (which is no doubt the way Mapplethorpe, always with an eye on his legacy, would have wanted it).
Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut, like the original Mapplethorpe, is a footnote to the only thing that matters: the art. Whether the subject is the formal perfection of a flower before it fades into oblivion, a bullwhip up an anus, or a black cock unleashed from the constraints of a suit’s zipper, the technical mastery is undeniable. We’re talking about them — and, for some people, still scandalized by them — decades later.