For her first narrative feature, award-winning documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner spent more than a decade developing this biopic about photographic artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Her passion in the project shows in its striking attention to detail and her willingness to dig deeply into the more complex corners of this iconic man’s life. Mapplethorpe premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won Audience Choice, and was also screened at Thessaloniki International Film Festival.
The film opens in late-1960s New York, where Robert (Matt Smith) is trying to launch his career as an artist. His parents (Mark Moses and Carolyn McCormick) are disappointed that he has chosen this profession, but they’re happy when he unexpectedly brings his fiancee home for the holidays. This is Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), a fellow artist he connected with in New York, and she only agreed to pretend to be engaged as a joke. Partners in crime, and in the bedroom, they move together into the Chelsea Hotel to pursue their careers. But Robert’s increasing interest in men becomes an issue. “If you leave me, I’ll become gay!” he cries to her. But once she’s gone he’s free to be himself, sleeping with pretty much every man he meets.
He also hones his art, working first with a Polaroid and then a high-quality camera given to him by patron/lover Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey). Sam is bothered by Robert’s rampant promiscuity, but puts up with it while helping propel him to stardom. And Robert’s brother Edward (Brandon Sklenar) joins him as an assistant, even though he wants to be a photographer himself. Then in the 1980s, AIDS arrives. Robert chooses to ignore it as long as he can, then sets up a major career retrospective and launches a foundation to fund new photographers and AIDS research, just before his death at age 42 in 1989.
Covering two decades, the film includes a lot of detail without ever bogging down in the way the story is told. Timoner skilfully avoids rushing through the events, letting scenes flow into each other to capture Mapplethorpe’s personality, including most notably the way he saw equal beauty in flowers, celebrity portraits and extreme images of sadomasochism and gay sexuality. Indeed, his final show mixed all of these images together, creating a storm of controversy after his death. Few galleries are brave enough to exhibit them all together; most hide the more explicit images in a restricted side room. But their beauty is undeniable, and Timoner includes a remarkable number of these images throughout the film. There are also several beautifully staged sequences that offer an extended look at how some of the more iconic images came to be, including Mapplethorpe’s work with models like Ken Moody (Rotimi Paul) and Milton Moore (McKinley Belcher).
Through all of this, Smith delivers a stunningly loose, offhanded performance that brings Mapplethorpe to vivid life. And he also offers telling glimpses under the surface, revealing both his insecurities and conflicting emotions, which connect strongly with the excellent supporting cast members. All of this creates an involving, resonant portrait of an important artist whose work is still ahead of its time. One of these days, the world will catch up with his vision of beauty.