For so long, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was almost always discussed in the same breath as his onetime partner, rock star and poet Patti Smith. True art connoisseurs, however, know him to be one of the most controversial photographers of recent memory, famously sending the art world into a pornography debate a year after his death in 1989 when the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati was charged with obscenity while hosting a traveling retrospective of his work; that same year, Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art dropped the show completely.
Mapplethorpe, who photographed celebrities, friends, underground gay BDSM clubs, hardcore sex acts, nudes and flowers in breathtaking black and white, has been well-deserving of a film of his own for a while, and he was recently featured in two: HBO’s documentary Look at the Pictures and Ondi Timoner’s woefully unexciting Mapplethorpe. The film meanders aimlessly through the life of the artist (played by Doctor Who actor Matt Smith) as his career is buoyed by admiring onlookers of his work and lovers, from art dealer Sandy Daley, who handed Mapplethorpe a Polaroid camera during his struggling Hotel Chelsea days and sealed his fate as photographer, to wealthy benefactor Sam Wagstaff, with whom Mapplethorpe enjoyed a loving relationship for a while.
Timoner and co-writer Mikko Alanne follow the basic tenets of a run-of-the-mill biopic to tell Mapplethorpe’s tale, but they forgot to give their subject a soul. After all, this is the photographer who was able to capture the dynamic energy of men in sexual congress in one photograph, while staging a beautiful still life of lilies in another. All of his work was pointedly shot with a specific gaze that sought beauty across a diverse spectrum of subjects, so you know the man contained multitudes. But this Mapplethorpe is dull at best, despite Smith’s competent performance skills. At his worst, he’s a raging sex and drug addict, willing to exploit whomever for the perfect shot. The film follows him as he descends into his addictions until his death from AIDS in 1989. Flatline. Post script. End credits.
Smith does what he can to make his character interesting, and there are so many moments of fine madness and libertine sexiness he inserts that bring the drama, but not even the sight of Smith’s naked glutes can stop his Mapplethorpe from coming across as aloof and unlikeable. That Mapplethorpe’s art is so beautiful is what is supposed to redeem him, it seems, but that’s not great storytelling—it’s lazy filmmaking.
Mapplethorpe strikes through bullet points of eventful years in the artist’s life, punctuated by random archival footage. For instance, an inter title tells you it’s 1981, followed by footage of Pac-Man, then footage of John McEnroe in a tennis match—in case you needed it to feel as if it were 1981.
Before then, in 1967, Mapplethorpe met Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón). And in their scenes together, Rendón and Smith bring a sweetness and vulnerability to the legendary duo’s bohemian youth, which is a quality the rest of the film sorely lacks.
Their ragamuffin Camelot is upended when Mapplethorpe experiences gay love with David Croland (Thomas Philip O’Neill), and from there, it’s not clear whether the film is subtly vilifying his hedonistic lifestyle with his eventual AIDS diagnosis. Nor are many of the other gay characters, save for Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), given much to do or say beyond being Mapplethorpe’s willing photographic subjects (and sexual playthings).
Despite the stellar cast and the fact that the film is supported by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation (interestingly, it is not supported by Smith herself, and that’s a red flag if I ever heard of one), Mapplethorpe is frustratingly unsatisfying as a biopic. Sure, it lays out his life story and presents his abrasive personality as honestly as it can, but there’s so little insight into his creative process as an artist or discussion as to how his work affected people beyond his close circle—or anything that makes a subject interesting enough to have a biopic made about him.
“Beauty and the devil are the same thing to me,” Smith’s Mapplethorpe declares early in the film. Who would have thought the person quoted as saying something as provocative as that could be made to look so uninteresting.
Mapplethorpe was directed by Ondi Timoner; written by Timoner and Mikko Alanne; and stars Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón and John Benjamin Hickey.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.