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There is a lot of penis in Ondi Timoner’s “Mapplethorpe,” a streamlined, straightforward biopic about the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. For those familiar with the late artist’s work, that may not come as much of a surprise — many of his most famous images center on male genitalia, rendering plump and veiny dicks with the same religious awe that Michelangelo sculpted “The Pietà.” On the other hand, it’s rare to see any peen in a major motion picture (or a minor one, for that matter), let alone dozens of them in close-up. Not since the State of the Union have so many flaccid tools proudly displayed themselves in one place. How sad that it still feels transgressive to show them at all, and how much we owe to Mapplethorpe that depicting them is no longer considered obscene.
Of course, Mapplethorpe’s photography was less controversial for the flesh that it showed than for how it positioned that flesh in various states of homoerotic ecstasy and/or violence. Timoner’s film honors that legacy, ensuring that Jesse Helms would’ve censored the hell out of it had it been released in the tumultuous aftermath of Mapplethorpe’s death. Not only does this hyper-linear biopic include many of the original images, it occasionally takes things one step further, matching some of the disembodied members to the men — or at least to the actors playing the men — whose identities were often cropped out of the original frames in order to spotlight the penises and accentuate their innate theatricality.
Known for her confrontational warts-and-all docs like “DIG!” and “Brand: A Second Coming,” Timoner isn’t one to shy away from such aggressive material. Unfortunately, for all that bluster, her first narrative feature is less defined by the risks that it takes than it is by the ones that it doesn’t. Co-scripted by Timoner and Mikko Alanne, this runaway train of a biopic renders an iconoclast in the most generic of terms, straining Mapplethorpe’s brief life into a series of bullet-points that feed into each other with all the drama of a Wikipedia page, and a fraction of the context. Mapplethorpe fans have little to gain from such an uncomplicated portrait, while the uninitiated will likely be uninspired to learn more about him. If anything, they might walk away with the impression that he was something of a monster.
Therein lies the risk of casting “The Crown” star Matt Smith in the lead role: Few actors are so brilliant at capturing the inherent nausea of self-interest, but that gift can take on a life of its own if a filmmaker isn’t able to counterbalance it. Smith’s Mapplethorpe eventually becomes the biggest dick in the entire movie, but he isn’t an asshole when we first meet him in the early ’70s, only a wayward young illustrator with a beat poet haircut and a severe Catholic background (his domineering father is played by “Mad Men” alum Mark Moses).
One day in the park, a free-spirited poet named Patti Smith (a genial Marianne Rendón) asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend — but they aren’t pretending for long. It’s just a matter of minutes before the couple moves into Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, as the film skips forward with the staccato weightlessness of a rock tossed along the surface of a lake. It’s one of the most storied love affairs of the 20th century, but here it has all the stickiness of a coincidence.
Surrounded by artists and transients, Mapplethorpe discovers himself and his sexuality. And photography, for that matter. “If you leave me,” he says to Smith, “then I’ll become gay.” Cut to: Mapplethorpe snapping pictures of one beautiful man after another, ripping Polaroids out of his camera like tissue paper. He admits that he’s too lazy to develop photos in a dark room, but the petulant kid immediately feels entitled to a show from the city’s most prominent galleries. The same provocations that repel the establishment attract more progressive sorts, like curator and patron Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey). Cut to: Mapplethorpe in full stride, following his erotic fixations and getting in touch with the city’s BDSM community as he uses his high-contrast prints to bring gay culture out of the darkness. All of this seems to transpire in the length of a classic rock song, the semi-obvious soundtrack papering over the gaps in the story.
At least it looks good — constrained, but good. The most compelling arc in the entire movie belongs to cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, whose sunny, sepia-toned cinematography is sapped of life as the action transitions into the ’80s and the AIDS crisis begins to take hold. Most of the drama is confined to lofts and studios, but these spaces — at least in a physical sense — are as vividly realized as the outside world is not.
The lack of context around the photographer’s work is extreme (“Mapplethorpe mania has hit New York!” a newscaster declares at one point, our most concrete indication of the artist’s newfound fame), and any potential appeal of such an intimate approach is undone by filtering his personal life through a similarly reductive lens. To call this the “CliffsNotes” take on Mapplethorpe would be an insult to CliffsNotes.
Smith’s performance hints at tightly coiled depths that the movie skates by, and his character becomes easier to resent even when he begins to get sick. Mapplethorpe’s creativity is smothered in an unctuous need for attention, and his open rebellion against heteronormativity acquires a nasty vindictive streak when his little brother (Brandon Sklenar) tries to follow in his footsteps. At one point, he goes cruising with a full understanding that he’s carrying a plague in his pants. Timoner falls so far short of arguing for her subject’s value that you naturally assume the fault lies with the filmmaking. By the end of it, there’s almost something perversely enjoyable about a conventional biopic condemn its namesake like this, as though affirming Mapplethorpe’s belief that beauty and the devil are the same thing.
It’s telling that, for all of the penises on parade, Smith’s is kept hidden, always turned away from us or artfully tucked beneath a sheet. An actor should never be forced to expose themselves on screen. Nevertheless, that glaring act of modesty is emblematic of a movie that’s always reminding us of how little we see of the man behind the camera.
“Mapplethorpe” premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.