A portrait of the indulgence of art world celebrities, as seen by a youngster who still has some illusions to shatter, Mary Harron’s Daliland revolves around the titular surrealist, played with restraint and dignity by Ben Kingsley, as he gently pushes the spotlight towards his complicated wife/muse Gala, a role in which Barbara Sukowa more than deserves the film’s attention. Much talk around the premiere will center on scandal-ridden costar Ezra Miller, who briefly plays the performer as a young man; but that bit of casting turns out to be quite fitting, and the film deserves to be rated – as enjoyable and enlightening, though fairly well known in its storytelling – aside from that particular tabloid saga.
Public life was almost as inextricably linked to the art of Salvador Dalí as that of Andy Warhol (an earlier subject of Harrons, in 1996 I shot Andy Warhol), so it’s fitting that our 1974 introduction to him—through the eyes of James (Christopher Briney), a new collaborator at the New York gallery who covers Dalí’s work—is at a party: a mid-afternoon decadent gathering, in the suite of the St. Regis Hotel, the Spanish artist stayed every winter for 20 years. Among the followers and beautiful future muses, Alice Cooper (one of the most infamous celebrities of the time) hardly causes a stir. Like everyone there, he is there because he has Dalí’s interest.
It comes down to
Entertaining and genuinely eye-opening.
Location: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Form: 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 gallery owner Christoffe (Alexander Beyer) to bring Gala Dalí a briefcase full of money, and he had to expect that she would want something else, too. A woman with “the libido of an electric eel,” she added pretty guys to the couple’s entourage just as freely as he added women — though, unlike the supposedly celibate Salvador, she actually slept with them.
James has been warned to reject her advances without hurting her feelings, which is less difficult than usual, as Gala has given her body and heart to Jesus: that is, Jeff Fenholt of newcomer Zachary Nachbar-Seckel, who is currently the Messiah. plays in jesus christ superstar.
Clueless Jeff is here for comic relief and social intrigue, but his presence also allows Harron and screenwriter John C. Walsh to 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 didn’t share his glory, especially after Hollywood hugged him and (she thinks) mockingly asked why he was married to an old lady.
In Jeff, she has another embryonic artist to cherish, albeit one whose genius is visible only to her. As cartoonish as her current obsession may be, the film is quiet but utterly serious about her wounded pride and her unsung importance to the artist’s career.
Its importance has not been misunderstood by Salvador. James bears witness to a partnership of deep mystery, in which apparent betrayal means nothing more than small moments of disrespect are tightly controlled. Kingsley doesn’t give in when Salvador talks about the beginning of their romance.
While talking to James, the two are transported to the rocky shore where the pair met: When the young painter first sees Gala from a distance, a bewildered Miller works furiously to construct the right look of casual artistic flair, and then walks up to the young woman and immediately collapses into hysteria. In his youth, Dalí says, he had “many horrors and strange fits of laughter”; but Gala didn’t think he was crazy. That fact alone might explain his loyalty and needy devotion half a lifetime later.
James has taken up work as the painter’s assistant, commissioned by Christoffe to ensure he creates enough work for an upcoming show. Between his chores and meaningful conversations, he gains a deeper understanding of this small ecosystem from his other residents: Captain Moore (Rupert Graves), who works as Gala’s secretary and (unfortunately) understands their finances better than anyone else; Salvador’s current muse Amanda Lear (transgender model Andreja Pejic), who is rumored to be “a he” when they met; and Ginesta from Suki Waterhouse, who accepts that in this world she is just ‘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 offer the most empathetic perspectives on the Dalí’s unconventional lifestyle.)
The photo’s point of view and tight chronological focus help it avoid many well-known biopic pitfalls. We are only on this drive for as long as it takes to produce the work for this important exhibition, then briefly retreat 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 handed to him.
The film’s focus on James is one of many things that occur Daliland from becoming an awards ace showcase for one great achievement. And that’s a good thing, because while Kingsley is funny, charismatic, and thoroughly convincing, Sukowa meets him on every level and has enough script sympathy to (very) occasionally steal the movie from him. Certainly, the film makes this marriage look as captivating as any canvas or sculpture Salvador Dalí has created—and makes the carnival around the couple, essential as it was to their dynamics, tame by comparison.