Twenty-six years after making “I Shot Andy Warhol,” filmmaker Mary Harron returns to the late ’60s/early ’70s New York art world with “Dalíland,” this time with greater mastery and style. Ben Kingsley stars as Salvador Dalí, the eccentric Spanish surrealist artist who paraded around sporting a handlebar mustache and dressed like a 16th-century conquistador in the glam-rock era.
Harron dabbles in her own take on surrealism by converging Dalí’s romantic headspace and the ever-present decadent party scene. Her invocation of surrealism isn’t at all in Dalí’s style, which would be one way to approach the subject. But this definitely feels like her most layered and fully realized vision.
Like “I Shot Andy Warhol,” “Dalíland,” which premiered as the closing-night attraction at the Toronto International Film Festival, centers not on the artist himself but rather on someone peripheral in his circle. The film opens in 1985, as James (Christopher Briney, “The Summer I Turned Pretty”) watches Dalí’s appearance on the game show “What’s My Line?” and sees a news report about him suffering serious burns in a house fire. The story then resets to a decade earlier, when fresh-faced James has dropped out of art school and is running errands for a dealer. He is tasked with delivering cash to the artist with the caveat that he must nicely decline if Dalí’s wife, Gala (Barbara Sukowa, “Two of Us,” “Gloria Bell”), makes a pass at him.
In need of a new assistant, Dalí asks to have James on loan and nicknames him San Sebastian. The youngster convinces his employer to detach him for this purpose, promising to keep an eye on the artist and ensure he stays on task before the opening in three weeks.
The newcomer comes to find out the legend he idolizes is now a shell of his former self, and hardly in the mood to create. When Gala is out cavorting with her latest sugar baby, Jeff (Zachary Nachbar-Seckel), dubbed “Jesus” after his starring role in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Dalí sneaks in a night out on the town. The late-in-his-career artist resorts to hoodwinking untrained collectors with shoddy lithographs to finance his extravagant spending, with Gala siphoning much of the money to support Jeff’s musical endeavors.
Kingsley is dependably terrific, encapsulating the whimsy, the vulnerability, the chaos and the childlikeness of the enigmatic genius. Sukowa holds her own as the long-suffering and manipulative Gala, eliciting both loathing and sympathy. It’s thrilling to watch them go at each other and believably render the dysfunction and codependency in the relationship. Briney, for his part, is serviceable. Surrounded by a pair of showstoppers playing larger-than-life characters, he is engaging and sincere enough to string us along.
Producer Sam Pressman describes the film in the press notes as “Almost Famous” in the art world, and that’s indeed apt. The screenplay, written by Harron’s husband, John C. Walsh, focuses on James’ coming of age and loss of innocence amid all the follies. The mechanics of Dalí and Gala’s marriage are fascinating, and Walsh has done a remarkable job fleshing that out in recognition of Gala’s contributions both to the artist’s career and to his decline.
Less successful is the depiction of Amanda Lear (Andreja Pejić, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web”), Dalí’s transgender muse who here serves the same purpose as Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane in the Cameron Crowe film. Other than Gala, we don’t really get to learn more about the characters in Dalí’s inner circle as people.
The film’s most resonant scenes are the flashbacks, with Ezra Miller as young Dalí and Avital Lvova as young Gala. In a surrealist touch, Harron often has the older Dalí played by Kingsley appearing in the same frame as he reminisces about his past. These add a lot of heart and soul to a setting that’s purposely excessive and vacuous. They exhibit a level of depth and immensity not previously seen in Harron’s work, which is truly exciting to witness for those who have been following.
Of course, Miller’s personal issues are now well-known tabloid staples, and his presence presents one of the film’s obstacles. His role is minor, and there are entire scenes where he remains silent. The performance itself isn’t particularly memorable. But these scenes are transcendent and pivotal, and it’s understandable why they weren’t excised if reshoots were not an option. Potentially the greater hurdle for the film to overcome is the lack of approval from the Catalonian-based Dalí Foundation, which has threatened legal action.
“Dalíland” is exactly the kind of awards bait that one would expect to pop up at fall film festivals, and a very good entry at that. It’s based on historical facts and real-life characters, yet it feels timeless and allegorical. It’s indisputably Harron’s best, and she deftly locates stately classicism amid the crass and the banal, and vice versa. Hopefully the extraneous controversies won’t deter distributors from this decidedly worthy piece of work.