Mapplethorpe is the requisite biopic of Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the most famous artists of the mid-20th century. His artwork sought to find beauty in the profane and question traditional notions of masculinity, all of which means that he remains incredibly controversial to this day. (Translation: there's a lot of dicks. And fisting. And bondage. And peeing into champagne glasses. The usual.)
What's funny is that throughout the film, there is a dividing line between his art that is palatable for the masses and his art that is more risky and avant-garde. At a certain point, he holds two different exhibits on the same night, one at a gallery showcasing his more conventional art, flowers and tasteful nudes and such, the other more edgy and overtly sexual in a leather bar. This dichotomy is inherent in Mapplethorpe's work, and is a major factor contributing to the difficulty in making a film about his life.
While Mapplethorpe the film doesn't shy away from the elements of his life that would likely be sanitized in other films (consider, for example, the new film about legendary queer folk hero Freddie Mercury whose trailer only seems to feature his relationships with women), it nonetheless has a disappointingly paint-by-numbers approach to storytelling.
We see Robert Mapplethorpe first as a young member of the ROTC: although he's clean-cut and wearing a regulation uniform, he also happens to be wearing that uniform while laying on his bed, dropping acid and listening to rock music. So it's obvious from fairly early on that this is not a man particularly beholden to following the rules.
We follow him through his early days as a struggling artist in the Village, bonded to Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón) by affection and a unique understanding of one another. Even at the very beginning of his career, when he's literally begging the security guard at the Whitney Museum of American Art to let him in without paying the $1 cover charge and has to give his artwork as collateral for his rented room, Mapplethorpe is every inch the arrogant, tortured genius, convinced that he alone understands and appreciates true art.
From a working class family in Long Island, he has a chip on his shoulder, determined to prove his father wrong that he could make it as an artist. And eventually, he does. He switches from mixed media to photography (he also switches from sleeping with women to men, a transition underscored by a particularly emotional scene in the film when he begs Patti not to leave him, because if she leaves, he has to admit to himself that he's gay), and although most mainstream galleries are either uninterested or unable to show his work, he begins to make a name for himself.
With the help of an encouraging and wealthy lover (Sam Wagstaff, played by John Benjamin Hickey), his star is on the rise. But while he has this newfound success, he struggles with people understanding and appreciating his art for what it is, and his prickly personality isolates him from others who he might otherwise form attachments to.
The strongest critique of this film is that it is an utterly conventional biopic, strictly adhering to the, "And then he met this person, and then this happened," linear timeline. Knowing how Robert Mapplethorpe felt about convention, this seems like a particularly unforgivable directorial choice to have made. The film only works at all because of the talents of its lead actor, Matt Smith, known for his work on Doctor Who and The Crown.
He has an intriguing ability to project charm but also cruelty, which is a great fit for the larger-than-life but not inherently likable persona of Robert Mapplethorpe. In this role, Smith has a vulnerable sensuality to his thin frame, the physical embodiment of the broken and misunderstood (yet somehow arrogant) creative genius. It's his choices, his aggression and his frailty, that make the film worth watching, if only just. Smith's performance saves Mapplethorpe from failure, but isn't quite enough to make it a success.