Mapplethorpe review: Cork Film Festival

Mapplethorpe was shown in the Gate Cinema as part of Cork Film Festival 2018. Deputy Entertainment Editor Julie Crowley went to the screening.

Mapplethorpe is a biopic which chronicles the last twenty years in the life of artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. It is directed by Ondi Timoner, who previously directed documentaries DIG! and We Live in Public. Timoner and Mikko Alanne co-wrote the screenplay. The soundtrack features contemporary hits. This biography has a conventional linear narrative. It has several time skips that place emphasis on significant periods of his life. This streamlines and sometimes simplifies the events.

Robert Mapplethorpe rose to prominence in the 1970s New York underground art scene. His photography was controversial for its depictions of nudity, homosexuality and BDSM. His still lifes of flowers are also famous. He took photos of celebrities including Deborah Harry, Iggy Pop and Andy Warhol. He worked exclusively in black-and-white photography, and his photos still have a dynamic quality today. Matt Smith (best known for his role as Dr. Who) portrays Mapplethorpe over two decades of his life. He definitely has a physical resemblance.

Mapplethorpe left his conservative, disapproving family and went to New York to pursue a career in the arts, where he met Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón). She became his lover. They lived together in Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel. He meets Sandy Daley (Tina Benko) at the Hotel. She became his friend, gave him his first camera and encouraged him in his photography career. Robert and Patti worked on their artistic careers together. They broke up when he realised that he was gay. I was disappointed that the photoshoot for Patti Smith’s album Horses was not depicted in the film. It’s one of Mapplethorpe’s best-known photos and the photoshoot (as described in Smith’s memoir Just Kids) highlighted Mapplethorpe’s inherent eye for lighting and composition. Copyright issues may have prevented showing it.

The film is graphic in its depictions of nudity, sexuality and drug-taking. There are flashes of dark humour. It doesn’t shy away from showing Mapplethorpe’s promiscuity. It features the sexual imagery of Mapplethorpe’s photos and the people behind them, who were often his lovers, friends or acquaintances. He is ambitious, going beyond the traditional boundaries of what is acceptable in art. The action is interspersed with his famous monochrome photos. We see some of the work involved in staging them. He created striking images that broke taboos. Sometimes he acted selfishly, focussing on hedonism and alienating himself from the people who cared about him.

He had a significant romantic relationship with Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), a wealthy art dealer who recognised his artistic genius and became a patron of his work. Sam loved him but was sometimes frustrated by his promiscuity and selfishness. His work becomes highly popular despite some objections from curators who think that it is obscene. The photos are exhibited in galleries and are in-demand with collectors. Robert should be happy that he has achieved the success he craved, but tragedy strikes when he is diagnosed with AIDS. Smith lost a significant amount of weight to portray Mapplethorpe in the later stages of the film, where the effects of AIDS gradually deteriorated his health.

As AIDS ravages New York, many of his photography subjects, friends and lovers are affected. Sam notes that his photos are becoming ‘a gallery of the dead.’ Despite these grim events, Robert focuses on creating photos even when his health is failing. He seeks perfection in his art.

Brandon Sklenar portrays Robert’s brother Edward, who becomes his assistant and aspires to his own photography career. Robert is insecure about this, accusing Brandon of riding the coattails of his success. They eventually reconcile, and Edward later cares for him when he’s sick.

Tragically, Robert was only 42 when he died. He founded the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation shortly before his death. The film only mentions this briefly before the credits roll. The foundation raised millions of dollars for research to fight HIV/AIDS. It also has promoted his photography. Mapplethorpe is an interesting biography of a unique, talented, complicated man. It’s a good introduction for people who are unfamiliar with his work.