thu 29/02/2024

Dalíland review - a tidy portrait of a chaotic artist | reviews, news & interviews

Dalíland review - a tidy portrait of a chaotic artist

Dalíland review - a tidy portrait of a chaotic artist

Salvador Dalí is an unlikely 1970s party animal in New York

Clown prince: Ben Kingsley as Salvador Dali preparing for another evening in

The director Mary Harron is famous for staying classy while tackling blood-splashy topics – notably the attack on pop art’s leader in I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and whatever the hell was going on in the Bret Easton Ellis novel that became Harron’s American Psycho (2000). Almost any male director would have gone Brian-De-Palma-berserk with the latter, but Harron’s film is more memorable for an OCD Christian Bale handing out his business cards than any ultra-violence.

She’s got a cool eye and a steady hand when people are wielding guns and knives.

Perhaps surprisingly, there’s none of that in this enjoyable, jumpier biopic of Salvador Dalí, which features most kinds of human excess save weapon-play. Ben Kingsley is the sacred monster at the heart of it, and Christopher Briney a naïve young apostle called James, whose eyes are opened in time-honoured fashion to greatness’s shortcomings.

As if there weren’t enough over-the-top stuff going on in New York’s sybaritic beau monde of the 1970s, the movie finds even more at the St Regis Hotel, where Dalí is blowing through $20,000 a month on parties, painting people’s bottoms, more parties, putting Alice Cooper in a hologram, and more parties.

It’s a portrait of the artist as an old man desperately trying not to be authentic, as he issues undergraduate-level manifestoes about “making erotic every single piece of my life” in a bid to “cretinise the world”. The challenge for the film is therefore to seek some truth beneath the absurdism, which the script from John C. Walsh only fitfully manages. James, an art student from Idaho, moves from a job with Dalí’s Manhattan dealer to become the painter’s gopher and witness to his Olympian histrionics.

Much centres around the partying at the hotel, a round of fancy dress, cocaine and threesomes in a first half of Dalíland that is a bit too gossipy, montagey, and jukeboxy – with a soundtrack that might be direct from a K-Tel compilation of the period. But at least the costumes (fine work by Hannah Edwards) place many of their wearers a cut above the Seventies trashiness of, say, Studio 54: there are some nice jewellery and cloaks.

Only rarely is Dalí not in front of a mirror – either a literal one or the reflections of glory he demands from the poseurs gathered round him. In a few quieter moments James glimpses the man beneath and the source of his life-devouring evasions – which seems to have something to do with a deep sexual anxiety.

We get little help from Dalí's gorgon-ish gatekeeper wife, the Russian-born Gala (Barbara Sukowa), who somehow keeps him powered up while keeping as much distance from him as she’s able (and who may barely, if ever, have slept with him). The movie doesn’t really address Dalí’s Catholicism or his support for Franco.

Kingsley manages the artist’s antics with precision, his curlicue ’tache topped by sad darting eyes in contrast to the haughty goggle-look from Dalí photos. Briney’s James has angelic looks straight out of Botticelli, or perhaps Bertolucci, and the actor coolly navigates the course from idealism to fatalism. The funniest scenes feature the pretentious lead actor from the New York Jesus Christ Superstar (played by Zachary Nachbar-Seckel) who becomes Gala’s toy-boy and regales us with his own chronic rock compositions.

In the second half, a big Dalí show flops in New York and James moves with the broke artist back to Spain. He gets wise to a scam involving the passing off of Dalí prints as lithographs and finally ejected from the painter’s much-diminished circus.

But before that we’ve seen some flashbacks to the birth of Dalí’s loopy, iconic work of the 1920s and 1930s. The young Dalí (Ezra Miller) has a eureka moment contemplating a clock and some melting cheese (although we don’t see any actual paintings, which the movie doesn’t seem to have the rights to). We’re left with an overwhelming sense that surrealism was never much fun at all when acted out in the real.

The film's challenge is to seek some truth beneath the absurdism


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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