If you are familiar with Robert Mapplethorpe, you know about his photography and how polarizing it was when it came to his photos centered around the BDSM culture in the gay community. To see Mapplethorpe’s photography is to see a world, while captured in black and white, full of complexities but also beauty within the complexity.
In 2018, a film on the photographer’s life, aptly called Mapplethorpe, was released. Directed by Ondi Timoner, the film starred Matt Smith as Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith is best known for playing the title character of the British science-fiction show, Doctor Who for three seasons as well as playing Prince Phillip in the first two seasons of the Netflix series, The Crown.
On April 2, a director’s cut of Mapplethorpe will be available to stream. A press release for the director’s cut explains:
“Mapplethorpe, The Director’s Cut,” offers restored scenes depicting Mapplethorpe’s childhood love of photography, his embattled relationship with his father, and his lingering, ambivalent connection to the Catholic faith. The film follows Robert’s important love affair with Patti Smith and his subsequent, pivotal romance with powerhouse art collector Sam Wagstaff. We see Mapplethorpe’s development of a precise, erotically-charged photographic style, along with his ultimately successful struggle to attain mainstream recognition—a status interrupted, although barely halted, by his untimely death from AIDS.
“Mapplethorpe, The Director’s Cut,” portrays a nuanced portrait of an artist at the height of his craft, along with the self-destructive impulses that threatened to undermine everything he prized.
After watching the film, I must say I am pleased with how Smith portrayed Mapplethorpe and how the film did not gloss over the more controversial works from the photographer or shy away from the flaws that Mapplethorpe had. What I really love about this film is that it gives the viewer the sense of being a voyeur when it comes to Mapplethorpe’s creativity.
Mapplethorpe at his core was a provocateur who loved to capture beauty and perfection, and this is translated very well in the film, especially in a scene with Mapplethorpe and the priest he has known since he was a child. I won’t give too much away about the scene because it is something that needs to be seen, but the priest asks Mapplethorpe what gives the photographer solace. Mapplethorpe’s answer is “Beauty, perfection. Knowing my work will outlive me.” That scene alone brings home one of the underlying conflicts in the film, Mapplethorpe’s connection to his upbringing as Catholic.
One fault I have with the film is the relationship between Mapplethorpe and singer Patti Smith (played by Marianne Rendón). At the beginning of the film, we witness the beginning of Mapplethorpe and Smith as lovers but after they have a falling out over the discovery of Mapplethorpe’s sexuality, which occurred differently in real life, Smith became a minor footnote in the film with the occasional mention or appearance.
The other fault I have with the film, albeit minor, is the non-resolution to the conflict Mapplethorpe had with his father. At the point in the film where Mapplethorpe’s career as a photographer takes off with a dual gallery showing, one for his commercial work and the other for his erotic art, his parents come to see the commercial gallery and are unaware of the other gallery until his father goes searching for it. The film does a great job showing the horror of Mapplethorpe’s father at seeing the erotic photographs but after that scene, we do not see a true fallout between father and son. It is only alluded to in a conversation between Mapplethorpe and his younger brother, Edward, who comes to work with his brother as his technical assistant.
Aside from those two small faults, I really enjoyed watching Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut. It really captured the essence of who Robert Mapplethorpe was. If you are looking for a film on gay culture in New York City in the seventies and eighties, this film gives a good glimpse through the eyes of Mapplethorpe. If you love Matt Smith and his butt shots in The Crown, there are even more butt shots of Smith in this film (sadly, no frontal penis shots).
Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut is available to rent or buy on streaming or for free on Hulu.
Sources: NPR, MPRM Communications
Writer’s Note: This is the opinion of one contributing writer and may not reflect the views of Instinct Magazine itself or fellow contributors