In her narrative feature debut, director Ondi Timoner delivers a picture-perfect portrayal of enfant terrible photographer-artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The film spans his arrival as a complete unknown in the rough-and-tumble days of New York City of the Seventies to his international acclaim in the Eighties before succumbing to AIDS.
Early in the film we learn that the artist struggled with his upbringing in a strict Catholic household and his own sexuality. The tension would fuel his art as he moved from drawing to photography, exploring his own id through not only his subject matter but his personal life.
Mapplethorpe revolutionized photography by bridging the gap between pornography (or at least, what was considered pornographic then) and fine-art and photography. Whether he was shooting a flower or a deflowering (his depictions of male intercourse and genitalia were scandalous in the day), the depiction was always classically designed and crafted. In short, he was a master of light.
In lesser hands, this biopic easily could have slid into lurid sensationalism or mere flattery but Timoner knows her subject and isn’t afraid of showing us his narcissism, perhaps suggesting it as a requisite for being a great artist.
She secures a stunning performance from Matt Smith as Mapplethorpe as well as Marianne Rendon as his one-time soulmate and forever friend, poet-singer-songwriter Patti Smith, and John Benjamin Hickey as Sam Wagstaff, the pioneering art curator and collector who became Mapplethorpe’s patron and lover.
More kudos to cinematographer Nancy Schreiber for capturing the look and mood of Seventies Manhattan.