Dalíland: a one-dimensional portrait of Salvador Dalí’s twilight years

Ben Kingsley plays a late-career Salvador Dalí in a run-of-the-mill biography that has little to do with the creation of art.

17 October 2023

By Annabel Bai Jackson

Ben Kingsley as Salvador Dalí in Dalíland (2023)
Sight and Sound

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. 

Other things to explore

Festivals

Abiding Nowhere: a beautiful addition to Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker film series

By Nick James

Abiding Nowhere: a beautiful addition to Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker film series
Festivals

Pepe: Pablo Escobar’s philosophical hippo takes viewers on a radically inventive journey

By Jonathan Romney

Pepe: Pablo Escobar’s philosophical hippo takes viewers on a radically inventive journey
Festivals

Architecton: a daunting look at the rubble of our existence

By Nicolas Rapold

Architecton: a daunting look at the rubble of our existence