Mary Harron, director of I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), American Psycho (2000) and The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), returns to the grubby subcultures of late 20th-century New York with this portrait of Salvador Dalí in his twilight years, when his ego began to outstrip his relevance. But led by a tame script, which tracks the initiation of a baby-faced and profoundly ordinary young gallery employee into ‘Dalí-land’, the film manages to turn the story of the enfant terrible of surrealism into a run-of-the-mill biographical drama.
In Dalíland’s most compelling move, Harron and screenwriter John C. Walsh construct Dalí (Ben Kingsley) as a kind of husk: drained of inspiration, he is now a commercial vessel, paying for extravagant dinners with just a signature – worth more than the cost of the bill – and surrounding himself with a vacuous set of eye-linered, feather boa-ed acolytes. Into this milieu steps James (Christopher Briney), who is seduced by the parties, cocaine, and proximity to genius. He assists Dalí, facilitating his chaotic relationship with his matriarchal, cash-hungry wife Gala (Barbara Sukowa), but remains a conspicuously fictional construct: an audience stand-in, there to make sure Dalí himself is kept at a slippery, smoke-and-mirrors distance.
Kingsley’s performance is a sympathetic pastiche, playing Dalí as though he’s ribbing an old friend, while Sukowa gets the film’s best one-liners. Later, through flashback (Ezra Miller as the young Dalí, moustache and all), we see more of the co-dependent grief that blights their relationship – how Gala is a mother, manager, and outright mystery to Dalí. But the world they initially occupy in 1970s New York seems flimsy: the decadent soirées, with their one-dimensional sense of whimsy, feel like bad fancy-dress parties, while the greed of the commercial art world is presented in a blandly moralising way.
There is also shockingly little here to do with making art. With its emphasis on theatrics, Dalíland’s logic seems to rest on a misapprehension. Dalí wasn’t interesting because he was an eccentric, but because he was an eccentric who, with his delirious id-driven paintings and virtuoso technique, happened to put the rubber stamp on surrealism’s mainstream legacy, before sliding into Christian mysticism and pop art. His loss of mastery on canvas – “He does no paintings, nothing!” Gala shrieks when she realises they have no work to sell – is significant. But without this critical interest in the artist, not just the character Dalí once was, there’s a sinking feeling that this land could be ruled by any amusing, histrionic socialite.
► Dalíland is in UK cinemas now.