Despite showcasing some strong performances, Mapplethorpe is a biopic at cross purposes with itself. If you’re a devotee of the work of controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, it likely won’t illuminate much that you don’t already know. If you’re unfamiliar with him, you’ll only get hints of why it was worth making a movie about him in the first place.
Mapplethorpe, which world-premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, is an A-to-B-to-C chronicle of the life of the man who grew up in a Catholic household, was an art student at the Pratt Institute before dropping out and went on to attract widespread attention and condemnation for his explicitly homoerotic photography. The movie’s focus, however, is resolutely personal, beginning with his post-college days in late-’60s New York. Although Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith) shacks up in the Chelsea Hotel with punk-rock-sensation-to-be Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón), he also begins hovering around the leather guys outside the Hellfire Club and, before he can afford a camera, steals a gay photo digest to cut up for first collage work.
It’s not long (in the film’s chronology, at least) before Mapplethorpe is embracing his homosexuality and expressing it through photos celebrating the male form—all parts of it, including the specific one guaranteeing his pictures will be rejected by the mainstream art scene. He does find a few patrons, though, including middle-aged curator Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), who has the film’s best lines: He refers to Mapplethorpe as a “sumptuous storm cloud” and later says, “Sentimentality is the kiss of death in art.” Mapplethorpe director Ondi Timoner, a documentarian making her narrative debut, clearly agrees, and does not skirt the darker sides of her subject as his success and notoriety grow. When his younger brother/assistant Edward (Brandon Sklenar) aspires to move on to a photographic career of his own, Mapplethorpe callously insists he adopt a pseudonym. Later, an exchange between Mapplethorpe and his African-American lover/model Milton Moore (McKinley Belcher III) makes it evident that he can only truly relate to others as objects of his lens.
The movie has the same issue: The people surrounding its subject are reduced to pieces of his story rather than being fleshed out with inner lives. It’s a shame, because these are all good actors who make solid momentary impressions, but aren’t allowed to do much more by the script (written by Timoner and Mikko Alanne, based on an earlier screenplay by Bruce Goodrich). As for Smith, he fully inhabits the driven artist who was as tortured as he was talented, yet while his demons are evident, they aren’t explicated in ways that would allow us to truly understand him. After Mapplethorpe contracts AIDS, which would kill him at age 42, there’s a moment of black humor in his hospital room that adds a touch of humanity the movie could have used more of.
If we don’t learn enough about the inner workings of the man over the course of Mapplethorpe’s running time, we’re shown even less of his impact upon the art/photography world and its patrons. There are many unexpurgated views of his phallic pictures—some of which incorporated violent themes—but little address of the effect and response these provocative images elicited (a late-film reference to a 1988 retrospective expo is the first indication of his fame). Mapplethorpe feels hermetically sealed throughout, and that’s a big problem for a film whose subject was as defined by outside reaction to his work as he was by the work itself. The movie’s final miscalculation is the closing text screens describing the brouhaha surrounding Mapplethorpe’s posthumous traveling exhibit The Perfect Moment, which had its National Endowment for the Arts funding pulled and became the first such show to be (unsuccessfully) prosecuted for obscenity. While these events occurred outside the scope of Mapplethorpe’s life, the last-minute reminders of the impact of his work underline the lack of context in the movie preceding them.