Review: Daliland Explores the Surrealist Painter’s Later Life, in Odd and Mostly Meaningless Ways
I’m genuinely confused about what we’re supposed to learn about the iconic enigma who was Salvador Dali or art in general or the period in which Daliland is set (most of the film takes place in 1973-74, years in which Dali was probably the most famous living artist in the world) from this movie, but I’ll admit that watching Sir Ben Kingsley chew up the screen as the aging surrealist painting genius/madman is a bit of a treat, just hardly one that will leave you feeling entirely satisfied. We actually meet and observe Dali through the eyes of young gallery assistant James (Christopher Briney), who is keen to make a name for himself in the art world. He’s already dropped out of art school, but has turned his attention to working at the New York gallery that has the exclusive rights to display Dali’s work, run by Christoffe (Alexander Beyer).
While the gallery is weeks away from opening up a new show of Dali’s latest works, the establishment is panicking because they don’t have enough paintings to fill the gallery. Although Dali’s long-suffering wife Gala (the great Barbara Sukowa) is pushing him to work, Dali is easily distracted with thoughts of parties, orgies (he likes to watch, not participate), and just generally surrounding himself with beautiful, interesting people. Gala is a former sex addict who still has a thing for young, pretty men, and she even hits on James when he floats into this world on behalf of the gallery. But she has a full-time lover in actor Jeff Fenholt (Zachary Nachbar-Seckel), who has the lead role in Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway, and dreams of becoming a recording star, with the help of a great deal of money from his sugar-mama.
Money is a huge focal point in Daliland because the titular character lets it slip through his fingers like water, but neither he nor Gala want to be bothered with the details of where the money is coming from or going to. There are issues with legal and illegal “limited-edition” prints, signed by Dali, which is why the new paintings are so important—they represent a new revenue stream and source for these prints. As Dali’s secretary Captain Moore (Rupert Graves) says at one point, “A painting is no longer just a painting.”
After meeting and conversing with James briefly at a party in his hotel room, Dali decides that he needs the young man to become his assistant, at least until the gallery opening in a few weeks. And so James becomes part of the living master’s inner circle, observing him at work and listening to his stories, particularly ones about his early years in Spain, when he first met Gala (the young couple are played by Ezra Miller and Avital Lvova). The flashback scenes don’t really amount to much, and really only alert us to the fact that Dali and Gala were crazy from a young age, but they were also very much in love.
Directed by Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, The Notorious Bettie Page, American Psycho), from a script by John Walsh, Daliland also features a host of interesting supporting players, including Andreja Pejic as Dali’s trans muse Amanda Lear; Mark McKena as musician and friend Alice Cooper; and Suki Waterhouse as Ginesta, a self-described “piece of jewelry” for Dalli, someone who looks pretty and Dali likes having around him. James and Ginesta fall into a relationship of convenience and proximity, but it’s clear that she’s a free spirit, more interested in the experience than anything long-lasting.
I’m not exactly sure how much of Daliland is based in fact. Some of the characters are based on real people, some are amalgams of real people, and some are clearly dramatic license in human form. But mostly my issues with the film have to do with why I should care about people who place no value on money, the lives they screw up from basically being fickle and childish, or the relationships that they say mean everything but amount to nothing. I’m not even convinced Dali cared that much about art, other than his own. The flashbacks are meaningless, bordering on pointless, and there’s no real drama in the piece other than that created by Dali’s lack of interest in anything of substance. Watching the film was both fascinating and frustrating, but Kingsley and Sukowa’s performance at least kept me engaged.
The film is now playing in a limited theatrical run.
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.