THE STORY – In 1974 a young gallery assistant is drawn into the wild, never-ending party that is artist Salvador Dalí’s life in New York City. As he helps the aging genius prepare for an important show, he discovers not everything is as it seems.
THE CAST – Ben Kingsley, Barbara Sukowa, Chris Briney, Rupert Graves, Alexander Beyer, Andreja Pejić, Suki Waterhouse & Ezra Miller
THE TEAM – Mary Harron (Director) & John C. Walsh (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 104 Minutes
We’ve seen the story so many times before. Innocent young naïf just starting in a particular industry must work a job for a legend in that industry, but they’re notoriously difficult. Our young hero gets seduced by the legend’s lifestyle, falls under their spell, works hard to prove themselves, compromises themselves morally, feels terrible about it, and leaves the legend. This basic plot outline has become increasingly common over the years, notably as a way to get great actors to play other famous people, hopefully for year-end awards consideration. But this often leads to the lowest form of celebrity mimicry, performers putting everything into big cliché gestures because their character is being seen through the eyes of an innocent. Say this for Mary Harron’s “Dalíland,” then: At least Sir Ben Kingsley and Barbara Sukowa are doing exciting work as the great surrealist painter Salvador Dalí and his wife, Gala. Pity that the movie around them is so dull to watch.
It is the early 1970s, and young James (Christopher Briney) is working at a prestigious art gallery in New York City that is supposed to be putting on an exhibition of Dalí’s work. When James is sent to give a message to the painter, he is immediately latched onto by Dalí’s wife, Gala, and later by the man himself, who demands that the boy be his assistant until the show. James’s boss agrees on the condition that James keeps the artist focused on painting and reports back on his progress. The boy is immediately swept up into the Dalís’ bohemian world of muses, models, and wild parties, but soon learns that their marriage is both open and highly volatile, eventually learning things about the art world – and Dalí’s inner circle – that causes him to question if this is really the world in which he wants to live.
It’s certainly a sight to see Dalí in the 1970s – he looks like a relic in his ornate robes and flowy peasant shirts. It causes cognitive dissonance to think about him and Alice Cooper (Mark McKenna) being in the same space, but of course, both of them would have been honored guests at Studio 54. The Dalís worship the young and beautiful, surrounding themselves with muses to gaze at, flirt with, and pamper with gifts. Dalí signs all his paintings with a different signature, but for his lithograph prints, he will sit at a table and sign the same signature over and over on blank paper that will eventually be printed on. He will even sign his checks with a one-of-a-kind autograph so that the recipient will be less likely to deposit or cash it. Gala is currently swooning over Jeff Fenholt (Zachary Nachbar-Seckel), the star of Broadway hit “Jesus Christ Superstar,” even spending money to help him record a solo album. James becomes attracted to one of Dalí’s girls (Suki Waterhouse) and falls into bed with her… and another man while Dalí watches with his pants down.
What does James think about all of this? It’s hard to say, as John C. Walsh’s screenplay glosses over it, and Briney’s bland performance adds nothing. With such a black hole at its center, “Dalíland” would be little more than a list of interesting facts about Dalí, his wife, and their later years without Kingsley and Sukowa. The screen legends do what they do best, creating thorny, layered performances of these complex, fascinating people. While the script does push them to go big, both performers smartly keep their characters grounded, thus keeping the audience’s interest throughout.
One wishes that Harron didn’t follow their lead, though. For a film about one of the world’s most famous surrealists, “Dalíland” is disappointingly grounded in reality. The film’s one big stylistic gesture is to have Dalí walk James through scenes from his memories, which happens precisely twice in the film, both times shot no differently from any other scene. Isona Rigau’s production design and Hannah Edwards’s costumes are fantastically opulent, but the film presents them just as they are, with no flourishes or sense of drama to speak of. The film has an understanding of Dalí’s life but has seemingly abandoned any fidelity to his style. Coupled with a blank slate of a lead, it makes “Dalíland” a bit of a slog to get through, and that’s not something anyone should be saying about a film about such a genuine original as Salvador Dalí.