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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Mapplethorpe ***

Starring: Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, Brandon Sklenar Director: Ondi Timoner Country: USA “That’s my friend’s fist up my friend’s ass.” Saying that Robert Mapplethorpe was a controversial photographer is like saying The Beatles were somewhat popular. The shock-artist was renowned for his high-contrast black and white images and the high-polemics of his subjects. Placing a photo of an erect penis alongside a photo of a perfect flower, he dared his viewer to see the beauty that he saw in the rawest moments of human sexuality. Following the remarkable documentary Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures, Matt Smith (The Crown, Doctor Who) stars in this new biopic from a director whose biggest gig to date has been a Russell Brand live DVD. Following Robert from his days as an art student living with then girlfriend Patti Smith (Rendón), we follow a linear biopic-by-numbers as he starts with a camera, comes under the patronage of rich benefactor Sam (Hickey) and employs his brother (Sklenar) as his assistant. The film revels in displaying the cream of Mapplethorpe’s work, but somehow manages to make the artist himself seem somewhat vanilla. We see the stories behind some of his greatest works, but because the film holds back on being explicit, each time Smith does say anything risqué it feels like he’s about to wink at the camera and say “Aren’t I naughty?” It’s almost like the director hasn’t understood that sex and art can be interchangeable, which is kind of the point of his work. Is it porn? Yes. Is it art? Yes. For Mapplethorpe, the two were not mutually exclusive. There’s no great story arc, just a plod through the episodes in his life. Though Matt Smith does bear a remarkable resemblance to the photographer and delivers a strong performance too, he is limited by an average script that provides little insight into his inner monologue. There’s a steeliness that settles upon him as he nears the end of his life, but this comes from the actor only as he does the best he can with weaker material. And as his body fails with the symptoms of AIDS, you look back on the narrative and realise there is none. It’s another biopic that exists to capitalise on the subject’s name, rather than having a real story to tell. The story is fairly sanitised, focusing on his more wholesome relationships than his more indelicate, but exploring the psychology of one of the most challenging photographers in history makes for fairly interesting viewing, even if its execution is about as artistic as an Argos catalogue. There’s no denying that his work itself is nothing short of remarkable. With a stronger director this could have been an explosive piece, but the fact that a film with an actor-de-jour has gone straight to DVD is a fairly strong indication of what you’re getting here. If anything, it feels most like a TV movie, but with added photos of dicks. OUT NOW ON DVD AND ON DEMAND. RELEASED BY SIGNATURE.

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