Robert Mapplethorpe wanted to live after death, and he did, in a way, since his photographs were the lasting mark he left on the world. But to anyone outside the art landscape, Mapplethorpe, or the biopic that follows the photographer from his ascent in the ’70s to his surprising end in the ’80s, never really focuses on what that lasting impact looks like and why his bold statements on male sexuality shook the field, including the ultimate question “Should art be censored?”
Mapplethorpe was known for photographing controversial subject matter, regularly turning his lens toward New York’s BDSM culture in the ’70s. There are flowers and celebrities, or shots that art galleries felt better about exhibiting, as well. Often, these pieces would show on one side of the room and the “sex pictures” on the other, developing this duality in both Mapplethorpe’s portfolio and Mapplethorpe himself.
The film, written and directed by Ondi Timoner, attempts to show the complexity of Mapplethorpe, whom Matt Smith plays brilliantly. He’s the embodiment of the tortured-artist trope, using his art as collateral for a place to live. He mixes his personal and professional lives, sleeping with his models and subjects of his photos; he treats his family with disdain, even his brother, who becomes his assistant to learn his craft. Toward the end, the film very lightly touches on Mapplethorpe’s series of photos depicting black males. One of the artist’s relationships, that with Milton (McKinley Belcher III), is painted as problematic, but there never seems to be a lasting implication to his sexual exploitation of (what art critics have labeled as) black queer men.
In all this, Smith gives Mapplethorpe an electric vulnerability, breaking down the wall between the artist’s personal and public life. The most moving part of the film is his bond with Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), the rich art benefactor whose money shoots Mapplethorpe into the spotlight. But there are some big gaps, one of which revolves around Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), the singer-songwriter whose nearness to Mapplethorpe kept the two, then stars about-to-be-born, afloat in New York. She is only there for about a third of the film, literally out of the frame the moment Mapplethorpe admits to his homosexuality.
Many times throughout the film, we see galleries reject Mapplethorpe’s photos due to its risqué nature. One time, Mapplethorpe argues that it’s his subjects that make his photos art and not so much the technical work behind them. But those lasting ideas, the ones that have continued past Mapplethorpe’s death, are barely addressed here, despite extensive scenes of him losing his battle to AIDS. A series of flashcards at the end fills us in on the life-after-death that Mapplethorpe craved, but it would have been better to show them rather than say them.