Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
The Kinky: Mapplethorpe – The Director’s Cut
Movies often have bumpy journeys to the screen, especially when dealing with sexual subject matter. Today’s case in point: Mapplethorpe, the 2018 biopic of the titular artist, a man that specialized in homoerotic visuals. The film, directed by Ondi Timoner, underwent key edits after disputes arose between the director and producers. Ultimately, the movie played the festival circuit before disappearing into a lukewarm reception.
Flash forward to 2021, and Timoner finally had the opportunity to release her cut of the film. In shorts, it’s much better. Matt Smith plays Robert Mapplethorpe, the ultra-ambitious, egotistical, and temperamental photographer. He arrives in New York, makes friends with Patti Smith and (Marianne Rendón), comes out as gay, and proceeds to make a career out of photographing celebrities and hardcore BDSM situations in black and white.
The plotting feels like general, by-the-numbers biopic filmmaking. This new version of the film, however, focuses more on Mapplethorpe’s artistic drive which pushes him to the brink of madness…and just about drags everyone around him to the loony bin too. It also attributes much of the photog’s fascination with sex and S&M to his Catholic upbringing. Few movies of any kind have the courage to call out the hypersexual imagery found in churches all over the world: artwork depicts Jesus as almost naked on the cross, not to mention getting bound, whipped, and beaten into submission. For Mapplethorpe, Timoner argues, eroticism, bondage, and religion became fused. His body of work sanctifies homoerotic, kinky sex as a holy thing.
In the title role, Matt Smith gives a fine performance, emphasizing Mapplethorpe’s personality contradictions and selfish impulses. He and Timoner don’t hesitate to depict the artist as manipulative, opportunistic, and fetishistic of race. He’s not at all a character we want to root for, but he’s not boring either. The interplay between Mapplethorpe and Smith also creates some of the film’s most intriguing moments. These two people recognize each other’s gifts and personality flaws. Their conversations read with a peculiar subtext, as if to say you’re ridiculous, but I get it.
Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut may not be a great film, but it improves its theatrical predecessor in fundamental ways. It also makes thoughtful observations about how artists relate to one another, and how sexual religious iconography influenced one of the most interesting queer artists of his day. For Robert Mapplethorpe, a kinky career began in church.
Streams on Amazon, Kanopy & VUDU.