Film Reviews


Published July 14, 2023
Excess as way of life - Dalí

“Dalí was never in the art business,” recalled Amanda Lear, “he was in showbusiness.” As his long-serving model and muse, the statuesque pop idol could speak with authority. She had been a regular member of the maestro’s entourage, a witness to the antics that earned him notoreity in the mass media and the contempt of the art world. Although Salvador Dalí was one of the most famous artists of the 20th century, by the 1970s, when this film begins, he is better known for his parties, his publicity stunts, and his moustache. The art had fallen away as his fame skyrocketed, leaving a pathetic, elderly jester playing the role of himself.

In Dalíland, director Mary Harron takes on the difficult task of the artist bio-pic, a genre that courts failure, as an artist’s work is usually more exciting than his or her life. She does, however, have form in this area, having made I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), a surprisingly good movie about that most opaque of artists. She also made American Psycho (2000) which might be relevant here, as Dalí was one of the great psychos of modern art.

Ben Kingsley puts in a memorable performance as Dalí, rolling his eyes and his rrrrrs, combining mock dignity with sheer absurdity. Barbara Sukowa is just as good playing Gala, Dalí’s monstrous wife and micromanager. Her first husband, poet Paul Éluard, said Gala had a gaze that could pierce walls, and this is precisely the woman we see in this film.

The most dubious part of the story is a young man named James Linton (Christopher Briney) a fictional creation stitched together from other people’s memoirs, who begins as a gallery assistant tasked with delivering cash to Dalí and becomes an acolyte. As James sinks ever deeper into the Dalí universe, it’s Almost Famous all over again, with added Surrealism. I can understand why Harron and writer, James Walsh felt the need for a character who could stand back and provide some distance on this contrived lunacy, but “angelic” looking James is the weakest, most artificial part of the package.

If there is very little art to be seen in Dalíland, this may be because the filmmakers were unable to secure the necessary permissions – another hazard of the genre. There was, however, very little art being made by Dalí at this stage. His masterpieces such as The Persistence of Memory (1931), with its melting clocks, lay in the distant past. By the 1950s his inspiration had begun to dry up and he relied heavily on assistants. It’s been said that he hardly painted anything over the last two decades of his life, although everything bore his signature – or rather, “signatures”. By some accounts Dalí had 676 different signatures, making authentication a nightmare. As he gradually succumbed to Parkinsons Disease (hinted at in this film by an occasional shaky hand) Dalí found it increasingly difficult to paint, or even sign.

If the output from Dalí’s studio remained prodigious, that was because he and the fearsome Gala required mountains of cash to fund their lifestyle, which saw them spend a couple of months every year staying at the Hôtel Meurice in Paris, and another two months at the St. Regis in New York, where the room bill came to $20,000 a month. Factor in the parties and there was no change from $50,000. This was the logical development of the growing avarice Surrealist general, André Breton diagnosed in 1939, when he came up with the anagram of Dalí’s name, “Avida Dollars”.

Dalí’s business manager, Major Peter Moore (Rupert Graves), was tasked with finding the money to pay for the couple’s fantasies. He obliged by turning Dalí in a brand, whose work appeared on ties, ashtrays, perfume bottles, and anything else that could be sold in a gift shop. In the process he siphoned off millions into his own pockets.

Some of the most ruinous expenses came from Gala’s gambling debts, and the money she lavished on the toy boys she needed to satisfy her hyperactive libido, which roared on unstoppably into her 80s. Most of these lovers were disposable, but Jeff Fenholt (Zachary Nachbar-Seckel) who played the lead role in Jesus Christ Superstar, became her obsession. Gala would spend a fortune on Jeff, trying to promote a musical career that never took off. Dalí preferred Alice Cooper, played by Mark McKenna in this movie. One day someone should do a bio pic of Cooper, the shock rocker who was friends with Dalí and Groucho Marx!

While Gala had to have sex at least twice a day, Dalí’s own policy was to watch and wank. One of his mottos was: “The most exciting thing about sex is not having sex.” Aside from painting, his two greatest skills seem to have been masturbation and farting.

Dalí’s voyeurism reached such extremes it would have made the Marquis de Sade gasp. The “sex circuses” he orchestrated in his New York hotel suite were anthologies of perversion, featuring tramps, catwalk models, dwarves, contortionists, hermaphrodites, and gold-painted lobsters.

Harron gets all this into her snapshot of the 70s, and much else besides. Inevitably, a lot of anecdotes get funnelled into this stay in New York, including a work in which Dalí gets a group of models to sit on wet clay, taking imprints of their bare bottoms. By some accounts this piece is now in the Vatican collection, the buttock prints transformed into angel wings, but one suspects this, like much else in the Dalí legend, is pure fiction.

As we leave Manhattan and return to Dalí’s home in stony Port Lligat on the Costa Brava, the circus takes on a sad and sour aspect, as James – as our man in Dalíland – discovers that the maestro has been signing tens of thousands of blank sheets of paper to be turned into mass production prints and sold to gullible buyers. It is the print scandal, more than anything, that has destroyed Dalí’s credibility with dealers and auction houses.

The problem for any filmmaker who sets out to portray Dalí’s last decade is that it’s virtually impossible to separate fact from fiction. Dalí and Gala’s excesses were so fantastic they are almost unbelievable. This in turn has generated a small industry of memoirs and biographies in which friends and hangers-on recount their own heavily mythologised experiences. This entertaining but patchy film asserts that Dalí’s greatest creation was himself, but it was a work of theatre rather than art. The story begins as a mystery, grows into a rip-roaring spectacle, and ends in tragedy. It’s not exactly a moral lesson, it’s pure Surrealism.





Directed by Mary Harron

Written by John Walsh

Starring: Ben Kingsley, Barbara Sukowa, Christopher Briney, Andreja Pejić, Rupert Graves, Zachary Nachbar-Seckel, Ezra Miller, Alexander Beyer, Mark McKenna, Suki Waterhouse

USA/France/UK, M, 97 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 15 July, 2023