This Dalí biopic is too focused on trivia to depict the larger canvas

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

VOD, June 9
2.5 out of 5

Most geniuses shine brightly for a brief period, flame out spectacularly, and their legend becomes seared in our collective mind. Some, though, enjoy long lives — long enough for us to become aware of their shortcomings and peccadilloes, and perhaps even watch them wither and die. Salvador Dalí’s later years were particularly rough: depression, drug addiction, Parkinson’s, and allegations of fraud that the artist, in his enfeebled state, was unable to refute.

Daliland covers the beginning of the end of the surrealist wunderkind. In the early 1970s Dalí was at the peak of his pop culture fame, a fame that put him at odds with the artistic establishment. He was seen as a clown, a shadow of his rule-breaking self, forever pining for his muse Gala, who seemed in it strictly for the money.

We meet Dalí (a game Ben Kingsley) during his yearly visit to New York. The artist would take up residence at the St. Regis Hotel and host Warholian parties for the young and pretty (the “Daliland” of the title). James (newcomer Christopher Briney), an art school dropout, is tasked by a gallerist with keeping Dalí working for a rapidly approaching exhibition.

The task isn’t particularly unbearable. Dalí is a gracious host, willing to share his knowledge, and the girls at his parties are gorgeous. But under the surface, disaster is afoot. His muse, Gala (Barbara Sukowa, Hannah Arendt), seems to have little affection left for the artist, and has fallen for the lead in the then hit Broadway musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Without her, the artist is adrift and easy prey.

Even though the film is ostensibly about Dalí, director Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol) is smart enough to not look directly at the sun. Instead, she uses James as a filter and audience stand-in. In a couple of silent flashbacks, we see the controversial Ezra Miller as the artist as a young man. The brevity of his scenes makes me wonder if his role was reduced following his multiple troubles with the law. He is fine as Dalí in his 20s, but the infamy makes him distracting.

While moderately entertaining, Daliland is over scripted. There’s practically no bit of dialogue free of trivia or anecdotes. Some of it is fun (apparently Gala lost a lot of money gambling in Chinatown), but after a while it gets old. The film never transcends the minutiae and struggles to portray recognizable human emotions.

Like many biopics where the lead isn’t portrayed as a saint or charming nonconformist, Daliland didn’t get the seal of approval from the artist’s estate — in this case, the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation. So his art is largely absent from the film. Peccadilloes and shortcomings aside, the suggestion that Dalí was a willing participant in art fraud (signing blank canvases, passing prints off as lithographs) must have ruffled some feathers.

If you want to acquire some passing knowledge of Dalí, you could do worse than Daliland. But for something deeper, try an art museum. ■