The late artist Robert Mapplethorpe photographed flowers and celebrities, but also naked men, S&M club scenes and male genitalia, in tight close-up. If the new biopic “Mapplethorpe” presents this transgressive vision in vivid detail — and it does — that’s only because it includes so many of Mapplethorpe’s pictures. Everything else in the film is timid and pedestrian.
Director and co-writer Ondi Timoner picks up the story in 1969, when the title character was an art student (and ROTC cadet) at New York’s Pratt Institute, and she follows it to the photographer’s death, in 1989, from AIDS. A strictly chronological timeline emphasizes events over themes or analysis. Along the way, Timoner’s film shortchanges — or bypasses entirely — several potentially illuminating takes.
“Mapplethorpe,” for instance, might well have focused on its subject’s intense and intriguing relationship with Patti Smith, played by a too-pretty Marianne Rendon. Mere minutes into the movie, the fledgling poet and future punk-rocker meets Robert, played by the sharp-faced Matt Smith, a former Doctor Who. But as soon as her boyfriend’s homosexuality becomes evident, the character of Patti largely vanishes from the tale. (A Robert-and-Patti movie would probably have required the blessing of the real Smith, who chronicled the couple’s relationship in her 2010 memoir, “Just Kids.” Unfortunately, Smith declined to cooperate with Timoner.)
The filmmaker might also have given more time to Mapplethorpe’s relationship with Sam Wagstaff, the (much older) collector who became the photographer’s lover and patron — and who succumbed to AIDS before his protege. As played by John Benjamin Hickey, Wagstaff’s character is more complex than that of Smith’s. But his bland reaction to Robert’s growing arrogance and cruelty is unpersuasive.
Perhaps most fruitfully, Timoner could have attempted to draw connections between Mapplethorpe’s Catholic upbringing and his deliberately heretical art. Stark, but lighted dramatically to resemble Old Master paintings, Mapplethorpe’s most scandalous pictures reveal what the character calls “a certain Catholic aesthetic.”
“Beauty and the devil have always been the same to me,” the artist tells a priest — who doesn’t seem all that concerned.
Yet aside from that scene, the impact of Mapplethorpe’s religious upbringing is represented mainly by his parents (Carolyn McCormick and Mark Moses), who come across as stodgy, but far from scary. The worst thing Mom does is insist on referring to Patti, who’s posing as Robert’s new bride, as “Patricia.” Not exactly the sort of repressive parenting that forces a son’s interest toward bondage and bullwhips.
Mapplethorpe’s pictures — the ones that beauty and the devil inspired — haven’t aged all that well, although they remain technically immaculate. “The Perfect Moment,” a traveling retrospective that began the year before the photographer died, got Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center charged with obscenity, and caused a furor in Washington, D.C., where the exhibition — planned for the Corcoran — was scrubbed after its National Endowment for the Arts funding was criticized. That art-world controversy is the subject of “6.13.89,” a show that opens in the capital, at the former Corcoran, in June.
“Mapplethorpe” represents a tentative shift from documentary to narrative feature for Timoner, who previously made such sharp films as “Dig!” and “We Live in Public.” Here, the director’s approach is straightforward; she doesn’t try to emulate such woozily subjective art biopics as “Love Is The Devil: Study For a Portrait of Francis Bacon” or “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” which melded art, work and erotic obsession.
Ironically, this film’s principal competition is “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” a 2016 documentary that zooms in on the artist’s craving for fame. That earlier movie is not a perfect picture, but at least it hasn’t been airbrushed into banality.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nudity, sexual situations, obscenity and drug use. 102 minutes.