A portrait of art-world celebrity indulgence as seen by a youngster who still has some illusions to shatter, Mary Harron’s Dalíland revolves around the titular Surrealist, played with restraint and dignity by Ben Kingsley, while gently nudging the spotlight in the direction of his complicated wife/muse Gala, a role in which Barbara Sukowa more than earns the movie’s attention. Much talk around the premiere will concern scandal-plagued costar Ezra Miller, who briefly plays the artist as a young man; but that bit of casting proves very apt, and the movie deserves to be judged — as enjoyable and enlightening, if pretty familiar in its storytelling — apart from that particular tabloid saga.
Public life was nearly as inextricable from Salvador Dalí’s art as from Andy Warhol’s (an earlier subject of Harron’s, in 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol), so it’s fitting that our 1974 introduction to him — through the eyes of James (Christopher Briney), a new employee at the New York gallery handling Dalí’s work — is at a party: A decadent gathering held in the middle of the afternoon, in the St. Regis Hotel suite the Spanish artist stayed at every winter for 20 years. Among the hangers-on and gorgeous would-be muses, Alice Cooper (one of that moment’s most notorious celebrities) barely causes a stir. Like everyone there, he’s present because he holds Dalí’s interest.
The Bottom Line
Entertaining and genuinely eye-opening.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Barbara Sukowa, Christopher Briney, Rupert Graves, Alexander Beyer, Andreja Pejic, Mark McKenna, Zachary Nachbar-Seckel, Avital Lvova, Suki Waterhouse, Ezra Miller
Director: Mary Harron
Screenwriter: John C. Walsh
1 hour 44 minutes
Or his wife’s. James was sent here by Dalí’s gallerist Christoffe (Alexander Beyer) to bring Gala Dalí a briefcase full of cash, and told to expect her to want something else as well. A woman with “the libido of an electric eel,” she added beautiful boys to the couple’s entourage as freely as he added women — though, unlike the allegedly celibate Salvador, she actually slept with them.
James has been warned to decline her advances without hurting her feelings, which is less difficult than it usually would be, as Gala has given her body and heart to Jesus: That is, to newcomer Zachary Nachbar-Seckel’s Jeff Fenholt, currently playing the Messiah in Jesus Christ Superstar.
Clueless Jeff is here for comic relief and social intrigue, but his presence also lets Harron and screenwriter John C. Walsh shed light on the Dalís’ creative/commercial partnership. In their early years, Salvador painted while Gala did the exhausting work of finding buyers. She built him up but did not share his glory, especially after Hollywood embraced him and (she thinks) sneeringly asked why he was married to some old lady.
In Jeff, she has another embryonic artist to nurture, albeit one whose genius is visible only to her. However cartoonish her current obsession may be, the film is quietly but completely serious about her wounded pride and her unsung importance to the art star’s career.
Her importance is not unsung by Salvador. James bears witness to a partnership of deep mystery, in which seeming betrayals mean nothing but small moments of disrespect are strictly policed. Kingsley is unindulgent as Salvador recounts the start of their romance.
As he speaks to James, the two are transported to the rocky coast where the couple met: When the young painter sees Gala the first time from afar, a gobsmacked Miller works furiously to construct the right look of casual artistic flair, then walks up to the young woman and immediately collapses in hysterics. In his youth, Dalí says, he was given to “many terrors and strange fits of laughter”; but Gala did not see him as mad. That fact alone might explain his loyalty and needy devotion, half a lifetime later.
James has started working as the painter’s assistant, tasked by Christoffe to make sure he creates enough work for an upcoming show. In between his chores and meaningful conversations, he gains a deeper understanding of this tiny ecosystem from its other denizens: Captain Moore (Rupert Graves), who works as Gala’s secretary and (sadly) understands their finances better than anyone; Salvador’s current muse Amanda Lear (transgender model Andreja Pejic), who, it’s rumored, “was a he” when they met; and Suki Waterhouse’s Ginesta, who accepts that in this world she’s merely “jewelry,” something “pretty for parties” but ultimately unimportant.
(Ginesta and James have an affair, an essential part of his introduction to urban sophistication. But Amanda will ultimately provide the most empathetic perspectives on the Dalís’ unconventional lifestyle.)
The picture’s point-of-view and tight chronological focus help it skirt many familiar biopic pitfalls. We’re only on this ride for as much time as it takes to produce the work for this important exhibition, then retreat briefly to Spain in the wake of its failure. Briney makes James wide-eyed but not naive, smart enough to accept incongruous new parts of the picture without buying every rationalization that’s handed to him.
The movie’s focus on James is one of several things preventing Dalíland from becoming an awards-bait showcase for one great performance. Which is lucky, because while Kingsley is funny, charismatic and thoroughly convincing, Sukowa meets him on every level, and has enough of the script’s sympathy to (very) occasionally steal the movie from him. Certainly, the film makes this marriage look as fascinating as any canvas or sculpture Salvador Dalí produced — and makes the carnival around the pair, however essential it was to their dynamic, look tame by comparison.