Dalíland is a vibe. It’s never easy to capture the spirit of an individual on screen, particularly one as unusual and provocative as Salvador Dalí. The biographical details tend to be easier, depending on how a script is structured. Director Mary Harron’s effort, working from a script by her husband, John Walsh, is a mixed bag. Some aspects are wild, funny, and colorful, as the Catalan artist by all accounts was himself. Other parts of this movie, including some forced exposition through flashbacks and an ultimately cynical view of the surrealist painter and his wife, are questionable.
The film uses the wide eyes of a newcomer to Dalí’s entourage to introduce the characters and their ambiance. “It’s like I landed on another planet… and I belong,” says James (Christopher Briney), the art school dropout turned gallery assistant Dalí handpicks to assist him in his day-to-day work. Dalí (Ben Kingsley) and his wife Gala (Barbara Sukowa) are both taken with the young man’s “face of an angel,” and Dalí calls him “San Sebastián,” though as the young man learns in a later scene, that didn’t make him special or even unique.
Briney, making his feature debut here, does indeed have an ethereal, genderless beauty about him, and his embodiment of the youth getting swept up into another world, a practical script device, is believable. So is his slow crawl toward deception with the master and everything that surrounds him. He begins an affair with one of the models in Dalí’s entourage, played by Suki Waterhouse (in a role not far off her recent turn in Amazon series Daisy Jones and the Six). But Ginesta, whose real name turns out to be Lucy, and their cocaine-fueled affair is a mirage – it means nothing, it adds up to nothing.
The same could be said for the artist himself, according to Harron and Walsh’s telling. This Dalí is frail, insecure and mentally unstable. He calls himself a genius, but that isn’t supported by events in the movie. In fact, he only works on one painting during the entire film (besides some cheeky – pun intended – prints from models’ derrières). Instead, he signs blank pages, leaving his handlers to create potentially dubious prints of his work. A flashback to the inspiration for his now-famous melting clocks isn’t shown on canvas – instead, we see Gala’s face as she judges its significance.
That’s not enough. If you don’t know anything about Dalí’s work going in, you won’t learn much from this film, nor is it likely to inspire you to seek it out. You might take away a distasteful impression of both Dalí, who masturbates while watching others have sex and collapses into a sobbing ball when he cuts his finger, and the spendthrift Gala, who finds validation in affairs with younger men and is said to have “the libido of an electric eel.” The two are portrayed as obsessed with youth and beauty, disillusioned with their own aging. Dalí has hand tremors that complicate his painting, not to mention his eyebrow darkening and moustache shaping. Gala, wig askew, appears pathetic fawning over her placating young lover.
Ben Kingsley brings gravitas to any role, so the problem is the portrayal not the actor. (Why not find a Spanish actor, though?) The occasional moments that feel truly insightful rest on Kingsley’s and Briney’s interpretations. Ezra Miller, as a younger version of Dalí, is forgettable.
What this film does do well in early scenes is capture the debauchery and look of the 1970s and also the master’s irreverent sense of humor – for example, in a dinner scene where he describes the world’s largest penis he’s going to construct to circumscribe the globe and end ejaculating on the United Nations, marking his “contribution to world peace.” We laugh along, before we grasp the film’s cynical tone and, like angel-faced James, see the fantasy dissolve into bleak reality.