A portrait of the indulgence of the celebrities of the art world seen by a young woman who still has some illusions to break, that of Mary Harron. daliland revolves around the surreal titleholder, played with restraint and dignity by Ben Kingsley, as he gently pushes the spotlight in the direction of his complicated wife/muse Gala, a role in which Barbara Sukowa more than wins the film’s attention. Much of what will be talked about in the premiere will concern scandal-plagued co-star Ezra Miller, who briefly plays the artist as a young man; but that bit of casting is very fitting, and the film deserves to be judged, as enjoyable and illuminating, though fairly familiar in its storytelling, aside from that particular tabloid saga.
Public life was almost as inseparable from Salvador Dalí’s art as it was from Andy Warhol’s (an earlier subject of Harron’s, in 1996). I shot Andy Warhol), so it’s fitting that our 1974 introduction, through the eyes of James (Christopher Briney), a new New York gallery employee who handles Dalí’s work, is at a party: a decadent gathering held in mid-afternoon, in the suite of the Hotel St. Regis, the Spanish artist stayed every winter for 20 years. Between the parasites and the beautiful would-be muses, Alice Cooper (one of the most notorious celebrities of the day) hardly causes a stir. Like all those present, she is present because she has Dalí’s interest.
The bottom line
Entertaining and really revealing.
Event: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
To emit: Ben Kingsley, Barbara Sukowa, Christopher Briney, Rupert Graves, Alexander Beyer, Andreja Pejic, Mark McKenna, Zachary Nachbar-Seckel, Avital Lvova, Suki Waterhouse, Ezra Miller
Director: Maria 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 cash, and told her to hope she wanted something else too. A woman with “the libido of an electric eel,” he added beautiful boys to the couple’s entourage as freely as he added women, although, unlike the supposedly celibate Salvador, he actually slept with them.
James has been warned to turn down her advances without hurting her feelings, which is less difficult than it normally would be, since Gala has given her body and heart to Jesus: that is, Zachary Nachbar’s newcomer Jeff Fenholt. Seckel, who currently plays the Messiah. 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/business partnership. In his early years, Salvador painted while Gala did the exhausting job of finding buyers. She built him up but didn’t share in his glory, especially after Hollywood embraced him and (she believes) sneered why he was married to an old lady.
In Jeff, she has another embryonic artist to nurture, albeit one whose genius is visible only to her. As cartoonish as her current obsession may be, the film speaks quietly but completely seriously about her wounded pride and her unacknowledged importance to the art star’s career.
Salvador is not unaware of its importance. James witnesses a society of deep mystery, in which apparent betrayals mean nothing, but small moments of disrespect are strictly guarded. Kingsley is not forgiving when Salvador recounts the beginning of their romance.
While talking to James, the two are transported to the rocky shoreline where the pair first met: when the young painter first sees Gala from afar, a stunned Miller works furiously to construct the right look for a casual art style, then he approaches the young woman and immediately collapses in hysterics. In his youth, says Dalí, he was given to “many terrors and strange fits of laughter”; but Gala did not see him crazy. That fact alone could explain the loyalty and devotion needed from him half a lifetime later.
James began working as the painter’s assistant, and was tasked by Christoffe with making sure he created enough work for an upcoming show. Between his tasks and meaningful conversations, he gains a deeper understanding of this small ecosystem from its other inhabitants: Captain Moore (Rupert Graves), who works as Gala’s secretary and (sadly) understands its finances better than anyone else; Salvador’s current muse, Amanda Lear (transgender model Andreja Pejic), who, it is rumored, “was a him” when they met; and Suki Waterhouse’s Ginesta, who accepts that in this world she is merely “jewelry”, something “cute for the holidays” but ultimately unimportant.
(Ginesta and James have an affair, an essential part of their introduction to urban sophistication. But ultimately, Amanda will provide the most empathetic perspectives on Dalí’s offbeat lifestyle.)
The film’s point of view and its strict chronological approach help it avoid many familiar biographical pitfalls. We are only on this trip for as long as it takes to produce the work for this important exhibition, and then we will briefly retire to Spain in the wake of its failure. Briney leaves James wide-eyed but not naive, smart enough to accept incongruous new parts of the picture without buying every rationalization that comes his way.
The film’s focus on James is one of several things that prevent daliland to become a showcase of awards-bait for a great performance. Which is fortunate, because while Kingsley is funny, charismatic, and completely convincing, Sukowa knows him on every level, and has enough sympathy for the script to (very) occasionally steal the movie from him. Indeed, the film makes this marriage seem as riveting as any canvas or sculpture produced by Salvador Dalí, and makes the carnival around the couple, essential as it may have been to their dynamic, seem tame by comparison.
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