With his provocative photographs, Robert Mapplethorpe left a legacy that still stands nearly three decades after his death from complications of AIDS in 1989. His first commercial success came in 1977 with twin shows in New York: one featured safe portraits of subjects like David Hockney, and one featured work from his X Portfolio: photographs of fisting, watersports, and other confrontational images, including a self-portrait of Mapplethorpe with a bullwhip inserted in his ass. Ondi Timoner’s Mapplethorpe dramatizes the artist’s meteoric journey, from the beginning of his friendship with punk poet laureate Patti Smith to his success as a provocateur and then to his ultimate struggle with AIDS.
The biopic does not shy away from the photographer’s less-than-seemly side—particularly his fetishization of black bodies, as is bluntly depicted via his affair with model Milton Moore, the subject of Mapplethorpe’s infamous Man in Polyester Suit. The film also explores the complicated relationship between Mapplethorpe and his lesser-known younger brother, the photographer Edward Mapplethorpe (also known as Edward Maxey). When the two were invited to exhibit at the same show, Mapplethorpe insisted that Edward use their mother’s maiden name because there could only be one Mapplethorpe.
Charismatic English actor Matt Smith (Doctor Who, The Crown) tackles the title role in a performance that is both physically and emotionally naked. Mapplethorpe features the photographer’s original art and was made with the support of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, which granted director Timoner full access to archival material and early works. Timoner is a two-time recipient of Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for documentaries (DiG!, We Live in Public), and she brings the nuance and vitality of her nonfiction work into her narrative debut.
— CINDY LOU PEEPLES
- Premiere Status: Bay Area