A renegade Catholic boy raised by conservative parents in Queens, New York, Robert Mapplethorpe transformed some of the most blasphemous subjects on earth — gay sex, Satanism, bondage — into beautiful black-and-white images. In her first scripted feature, doc filmmaker Ondi Timoner (“We Live in Public”) effectively does the opposite, taking a queer art-world enfant terrible and filtering his life back into gritty 16mm color, attempting to convey the nuances that made him such an enigmatic figure. To her credit, Timoner doesn’t shy away from the hardcore bits, which means her film will have to go out unrated (or else suffer the damnation of an NC-17), but neither does she capture what made the radical photographer tick.
In 1990, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati was charged with obscenity for displaying “The Perfect Moment,” a career-spanning retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work that incorporated everything from his flowers to his celebrities to a portfolio of sadomasochistic photos known as “X.” The subsequent legal battle inspired the 2000 TV movie “Dirty Pictures,” although Timoner’s film ends just before that brouhaha, with his death to AIDS in 1989, relying upon English actor Matt Smith (star of “Doctor Who” and “The Crown”) to portray more than two decades in the artist’s life.
It’s worth mentioning that case because it reminds that Mapplethorpe’s work reached the pinnacle of its capacity to offend the public sensibility a year after he died, whereas this film — in many ways the tamest of Timoner’s punk career, despite its subject — fails to dramatize just how provocative it was for its time. Though she goes to great lengths to recreate the setting, feel, and fashion of the late ’70s and ’80s, Timoner approaches the artistic value of Mapplethorpe’s ouevre as a foregone conclusion. And yet, to rob Mapplethorpe of his controversy is to strip the movie of its dramatic conflict.
By doing so, the script (co-written with Mikko Alanne) reduces to a rather banal biopic, reenacting how a scrappy outsider achieved unconventional success. There are many scenes in which Mapplethorpe’s closest allies — early champion Sandy Daley (Tina Benko) and wealthy older lover/patron Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) — proclaim his genius, contrasted with an equal number in which New York gallerists and tastemakers reject the photos as bordering on the pornographic. And yet, no one attempts to stop Mapplethorpe from creating such imagery (not even disapproving dad, played by Mark Moses), and no direct mention is made of the fact that he struggled financially, relying upon portrait commissions from wealthy collectors to finance his more outré work.
Remember, this was a time when Madonna ignited scandal by wearing lingerie on stage; America was not yet ready to see a bloody phallus, strapped down with string, bracing for a hammer blow. (Will the country ever be?) But instead of challenging audiences to draw their own conclusions about such extreme imagery, Timoner instead focuses on the obstacles any artist faces first in finding his voice, and then in finding entrée into the elitist art world, as if presenting Mapplethorpe as a role model for how it’s done — except in his case, it helped that he was so darn sexy: a tall, clean-cut kid who started to explore his wild side while an art student at Pratt U.
Only half-recognizing Mapplethorpe’s seductive magnetism, the film re-creates his meet-cute with a young Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón, too pretty to pass as the future punk icon), allowing them to play house for a time in the Chelsea Hotel (convincingly staged in an entirely different New York building). Smith went on to describe her relationship with Mapplethorpe in the memoir “Just Kids,” and the movie cements that myth without making Mapplethorpe look nearly so selfish or opportunistic as he has come across in other accounts — including the exceptional 2016 documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” producers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. In that film, the directors present Mapplethorpe as a fame whore obsessed with his own legacy — a watered-down version of which we get here.
A lean, Mick Jagger-esque actor with sharp cheekbones and deep-socketed eyes, Smith superficially resembles the photographer, and yet, he possesses neither the tortured attraction to the dark nor the impishly mischievous look in his eyes that defined Mapplethorpe as an artist. Smith is no wild mustang, but a well-bred stallion, and as such, it’s sometimes hard to buy him as a feral, unpredictable heartbreaker. Pushing the envelope of on-screen sexuality, Timoner depicts a rough, passionate lover, and yet, there’s no psychology to these trysts: Does he feel shame? What were the terms of his various relationships? (Wagstaff calls things off after discovering Mapplethorpe in a post-orgy tangle, while stunning black model-turned-lover Ken Moody questions the racist way the artist objectifies him, both in photographs and in bed.)
Of course, no authorized biography can get away with casting its subject in too critical a light, which might explain why Mapplethorpe’s darkest shadows go largely unexplored. By accepting rather than sensationalizing the artist’s kinks, Timoner succeeds in avoiding the pitfalls that made last year’s “Tom of Finland” (a biopic of one of Mapplethorpe’s erotic-art gods) so disappointing. There’s no rule that says straight directors have no business dramatizing the lives of gay icons, but it’s probably safest to approach such characters with a fundamental respect, as opposed to an incendiary desire to subvert the status quo (as William Friedkin so controversially did when tackling New York’s S&M underworld in 1980’s “Cruising”).
Timoner errs on the other extreme, falling into a pattern of memorializing several of Mapplethorpe’s most famous photo sessions, which proves predictably dull. Shooting on 16mm film, she’s not yet an experienced enough director of actors to avoid the unintended effect that a number of scenes take on the flat, amateurishly lit and awkwardly blocked feel of vintage porn. On the upside, the vast aesthetic difference between Timoner’s footage and Mapplethorpe’s photos (routinely intercut throughout) reinforces whatever magic the artist possessed to elevate his often-controversial subjects. Still, considering how completely Mapplethorpe made himself the focus of his oeuvre, one might expect the particulars of his life story to hold up better against this extended slideshow of his work — all the more striking when flashed on such a massive screen.