- Directed by Mary Harron
- Biography, Drama
- 1h 37m
One of the best things about “Dalíland,” Mary Harron’s amused and amusing fictional look at the singular Salvador Dalí, is that it isn’t a cradle-to-grave exhumation. Instead, the movie focuses on a period in Dalí’s later years when he was widely, wrongly and seemingly permanently eclipsed both by the commercial profile of his art and by the flamboyant scandal he had made of his life. Harron’s result is less a consummate portrait and more a distillation of a sensibility, as if she had dropped Dalí in an alcohol still to extract his very essence.
The man, the myth and the mustache are all here, albeit modestly. Harron’s path into Dalí’s world is through an invented character, James (the newcomer Christopher Briney), who’s recently landed a job at the artist’s New York gallery. An anodyne pretty boy, James serves as a proxy for the viewer, a wide-eyed tourist in a seductively foreign land. He enters partly by chance, although his looks and good timing help: Dalí (Ben Kingsley), who’s struggling to produce sufficient new work for an upcoming show, recruits James as an assistant, ushering him into the frantic, at times funny and often bleak bacchanalia of the movie’s title.
Much of the story takes place in 1974, starting with one of Dalí’s customary winter sojourns at the St. Regis Hotel in New York. There, in a spacious suite wreathed in cigarette smoke and throbbing with rock music, he and his formidable, sometimes terrifying wife, Gala (Barbara Sukowa), preside over a glittery circus that’s populated by beautiful people and supplicating waiters, and watched over by Dalí ’s longtime aide, Captain Moore (Rupert Graves). Amid the ostrich boas, flowing Champagne and lines of coke, the slack-jawed James meets hangers-on like Alice Cooper (Mark McKenna) as well as the artist’s muse Amanda Lear (Andreja Pejic), and one exceedingly dull love interest, Ginesta (Suki Waterhouse).
James isn’t all that interesting, either, and there’s too much of him in the movie. This isn’t Briney’s fault; he’s pleasant to look at, and he manages his transition from tourist to accidental Dalí-wood guide well enough. It’s just that once Dalí and Gala swan in, they immediately and rightly become the only characters you want to spend time with. They’re entertaining, for one, having long settled into roles that feed their public profiles and public relations: She’s the money-grubbing dominatrix while he alternately cowers, begs for her attention and upstages her. The relationship provides tension and mystery that the well-matched Kingsley and Sukowa complicate with gargoyle masks and shocks of vulnerability.
The story — the screenplay is by John C. Walsh — follows James as he tumbles further and further down the curious Dalí-Gala rabbit hole. It’s a predictable scene on one level, filled with writhing bodies, orgiastic evenings, pathological marital warfare and a great deal of tawdry art-world shenanigans. Considerably less obvious is Dalí and Gala’s confounding union, which began in the 1920s. Harron fills in some of the couple’s fascinating story largely through a few inventively staged flashbacks in which the old Dalí and James share the screen with the young Dalí (Ezra Miller, vivid and otherworldly in a small role) and Gala (Avital Lvova).
I wish “Dalíland” incorporated more of the young Dalí and Gala, partly because the images of the older Dalí physically transported into his memories are both visually striking and quietly touching. They also illustrate the centrality of time in Dalí’s work, a theme encapsulated in his most popular painting, “The Persistence of Memory” (1931), of a clock melting like warm Camembert on a long-lashed human face. The flashbacks help establish the emotional and psychological foundation for the couple’s relationship, one that’s encapsulated by the sight of the young Dalí, having apparently just completed that early masterpiece, weepily burying his head in Gala’s lap like a child. (The movie doesn’t include any of Dalí’s actual artworks.)
Dalí and Gala’s relationship mystified many people over many well-publicized tumultuous decades. The filmmaker Luis Buñuel, Dalí’s old schoolmate and collaborator on the Surrealist classics “Un Chien Andalou” and “L’Age D’or,” pointedly blamed Gala in his memoir “My Last Sigh” for the men’s estrangement, calling her “a woman I have always tried to avoid.” Buñuel’s violent animus toward Gala (he wrote that he once physically attacked her) is startling, and it’s hard to know how much of his loathing was inflamed by old-fashioned sexism. While “Dalíland” occasionally edges into caricature, its take on Gala’s role in the marriage, her temperament and feverish attention to money is happily more complicated.
“We need money,” the older Gala blurts out to the abashed Dalí during one bellicose confrontation over his lack of productivity, “money, money!” It’s a comic-pathetic scene, and while it would be easy to turn Gala into the villain of this story, Harron never does. Gala may be outrageous and at times deeply unkind, but Dalí married her, stayed with her, painted her. And she isn’t wrong: With their expensive habits and tastes, she and Dalí do need money to pay their bills, but also — as this movie repeatedly reminds you — “money, money, money” is what the far crueler, far greedier and far more destructive art world demands.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on most major platforms.
Manohla Dargis is the chief film critic of The Times, which she joined in 2004. She has an M.A. in cinema studies from New York University, and her work has been anthologized in several books. @manohladargis