On paper, Mary Harron was the ideal director for “Dalíland.” Set in the bohemian underground of Manhattan circa 1974, the film takes the kinky, codependent marriage between Salvador Dalí (Ben Kingsley) and his wife/business manager/mother figure/financial dominatrix Gala (Barbara Sukowa) and uses it as a case study for a larger deconstruction of gender, fame, wealth, and power. (It all comes down to power in the end.) Harron has fearlessly explored similar territory in the past with films like “Charlie Says,” about the woman of Charles Manson’s “family,” and “I Shot Andy Warhol,” based on the life of “SCUM Manifesto” author Valerie Solanas. So why does she pull her punches here?
Dalí is a more sympathetic character than either Manson or Andy Warhol, for starters — as low of a bar as that may be to clear. He’s self-indulgent and allergic to work, but what famous artist isn’t? That just necessitates the insertion of handlers like James (Christopher Briney), a recent art school graduate with an eye for detail and the face of an angel in a Renaissance painting. The former is what draws James towards the Dufresne Gallery, where he gets a job as an assistant. The latter is what gets James an assignment minding the gallery’s most lucrative client, Salvador Dalí, in hopes that he can get the mercurial painter to actually finish enough work to put on a gallery show in three weeks’ time.
James’ initiation into what its hangers-on call “Dalíland” is a “Through The Looking-Glass” experience, as he opens a door into Dalí’s hotel suite and walks straight into a swinging party packed with sexy naifs, famous musicians, and incandescent personalities like Amanda Lear (Andreja Pejic), Dalí’s confidante and muse. The music is loud, the champagne is flowing, and the sexual energy is palpable. But although Dalí is at the center of this chaotic swirl of activity, he is not its ruler. That would be Gala, who one entourage member describes as having “the libido of an electric eel” and who rubs her husband’s nose in her many affairs as an act of erotic humiliation. For his part, Dalí prefers to observe the orgiastic goings-on from a distance: Through a peephole, maybe, or peeking out from behind a folding screen in the corner of his studio.
James discovers Dalí’s tendency towards voyeurism when he spots the painter spying on him, his lover Ginesta (Suki Waterhouse), and another party-goer having a threesome at the end of a particularly wild night — an act of violation that leaves James feeling vulnerable and confused, but otherwise goes uncommented upon. The sexual power dynamics at play in “Dalíland” are some of the film’s most volatile, provocative, and underdeveloped aspects: Harron presents the unconventional arrangements between Dalí, Gala, and their lovers with a plainspoken lack of judgement. But the film only hints at how the Dalís use age and money as instruments of control, with or without the subject’s consent. (One telling detail that does make it into John Walsh’s script: The Dalís call all of their young female paramours “Ginesta,” and all their young male ones “San Sebastián.”)
Instead, the film focuses on the ways that those around Dalí took advantage of his lack of interest in business affairs, diluting his brand and defrauding collectors by passing off print reproductions as original lithographs. (If you don’t know the difference between a print and a lithograph, you will after watching this movie.) This is all part of a larger process of disillusionment James goes through as he spends time inside Dalí’s world — a process that spares the artist himself, whose major flaw seems to be that he’s too busy strolling the carnival midway of his mind to notice or care about what’s going on around him. And Kingsley plays the iconic Surrealist with a hangdog expression and hard, glittering eyes that see straight through what’s in front of him into some ephemeral realm beyond.
But given that the story is told from James’ perspective, the veil between what we mortals see and Dalí’s divine visions is never truly lifted. The closest we get is in flashback sequences that place Dalí and James on the edges of the painter’s memories like Scrooge and the ghosts in “A Christmas Carol.” Ezra Miller appears in these scenes as a young Dalí, in which they basically show up for a minute, throw a temper tantrum, and leave. Their presence in the film is minimal, as is the impact of these glimpses into Dalí’s past. These flashbacks give Walsh and Harron a poetic button to put on a story whose ending otherwise just fades out, but that’s about it.
On paper, “Dalíland” has all the elements of a fascinating character study. In practice, it’s more of a rote exercise. Appropriate for their dynamic, Kingsley’s Dalí quivers whenever Sokowa’s witchy, melodramatic Gala enters the frame. But the film offers as little insight into her psychology as it does Dalí’s — for all its promises of an inside look into the Dalís’ lifestyle, the film never does much more than document it. That distance does lend the film some opportunities for arch comedy: Gala’s latest conquest, “Jesus Christ Superstar” himself, Jeff Fenholt (Zachary Nachbar-Seckel), is an especially ludicrous figure. But it also drags the film down into uninspired, conventional biopic territory—a disservice to both a subject and a director known for their iconoclastic rule-breaking.
“Dalíland” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.