By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Dalíland revolves around the legendary surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala and the life they lived during their annual extended visits to New York City in the 1970s.
The film opens in limited theatrical release around the country and On Demand on streaming platforms on Friday (June 9).
The idiosyncratic artist and his equally distinctive (and complicated!) wife were in their mid-to-late 70s at the time the film is set, but hadn’t lost a bit of the zesty and decadent lust for life they had enjoyed for many decades.
The first time we are introduced to the Dalís—through the eyes of a young man named James, a new employee of the New York City gallery that handles Dalí’s work—is at a raucous daytime party they are throwing in their regular suite in Manhattan’s tony St. Regis Hotel. James has been sent to the soiree to bring Gala a briefcase full of cash, and has been told by the gallery’s owner to avoid any possible intimacy with the lady, who has been described as having “the libido of an electric eel” and a penchant for adding beautiful young men to her and her husband’s ever-changing entourage.
But Dalíland is not an overly naughty descent into the Dalís noted lifestyle but rather a wider ranging portrait of the era’s premier art-world celebrity as it follows the artist, his wife and their team as they prepare for a major gallery show. And though there are arty, Daliesque flourishes, the film isn’t even all that surreal (though there is a memorably dreamy flashback that finds Dali crafting his most famous painting, 1931’s The Persistence of Memory)
The movie features a first-rate, dignified performance by Ben Kingsley as the aging artist with the twirling moustache and another fine one by the always-game Barbara Sukowa as Gala. As we learn, it is Gala who manages her and her husband’s affairs (be they Salvador’s finances or her own sexual dalliances), while keeping a close eye on the celebrities, hangers-on and would-be muses who parade through their lives.
Newcomer Christopher Griney holds his own alongside veterans Kingsley and Sukowa as the third member of the Dalís’ New York trois. Strong support is lent by Suki Waterhouse as a sweeter-than-most party girl, Ezra Miller and Avital Lovova as the young Dalí and Gala, and Mark McKenna as rocking Dalí devotee Alice Cooper.
Written by John Walsh, Dalíland is directed by Canadian filmmaker Mary Harron, who navigated similar waters with her 1996 breakthrough film I Shot Andy Warhol. As she did back then, Harron tells the story of an artist on the New York art scene who frequently plays out his life in public. But Harron keeps a tight hold on a colorful story that could easily spiral into a mélange of sensationalism and montages.
Dalíland’s story is a decidedly offbeat one, but Harron’s grasp on the material is never off-center or excessive, even during James’ frequently wild adventures with the Dalís. One imagines Harron worked closely with Kingsley in bringing restraint to what could have been a much more flamboyant interpretation of his role.
For me, it is virtually impossible to watch Dalíland or any movie about Dalí—or probably anything that references his name or surreal style—without considering Dalí’s own work in the cinematic world, which was limited, to be sure, but legendary.
Leading the way were Dalí’s collaborations with the Spanish-Mexican filmmaking giant Luis Buñuel, beginning with the two co-writing Buñuel’s short film Un Chien Andalou. The 1929 landmark movie was received with enthusiasm by the burgeoning French surrealist movement of the day and remains a staple in college cinema courses and film societies to this day. The same holds true of Buñuel and Dalí’s second screenwriting collaboration for Buñuel’s 1930 surrealist French satire L'Age d'Or.
Dalí also engaged with Walt Disney for the 2003 short film Destino, which actually kicked off back in 1945 when Disney hired the artist to create storyboards for the project. It was shelved when Walt Disney Studios was hit by financial burdens during World War II, but resurrected in 1999 when Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney, re-discovered the dormant project and decided to move forward with it.
Dalí’s biggest moviemaking venture fell into his lap in 1945 when his agent called him up to inform him that none other than the great Alfred Hitchcock was interested in Dalí for, well, a nightmare. That is, he was planning a dream sequence for his 1945 psychoanalytic thriller Spellbound and was hoping that Dalí could contribute some of his artistry to its look.
“I wanted Dalí because of the architectural sharpness of his work,” the filmmaker explained in an extended 1962 interview with François Truffaut that was published as a book several years later. Rather than the kind of hazy Hollywood dream sequence that was de rigueur at the time, Hitchcock “wanted to convey the dream with great visual sharpness and clarity, sharper than the film itself.”
In Spellbound, Ingrid Bergman plays a psychiatrist who falls for her new boss, played by Gregory Peck, an amnesiac who may be a murderer. (By the mid-1940s, pop psychology was beginning to take a major foothold in America—enough to propel the plot of a major Hollywood production.) To prove his innocence, Bergman must analyze his dreams, which prompted Hitchcock to set out on a search for some fresh and striking imagery for the dream itself.
Though many designs and idea were floated, Hitchcock and the production house, David O. Selznick Pictures, ultimately only used three minutes of Dalí’s designs in the completed picture. (The dream was initially imagined as a 20-minute-long sequence!) But brief as it was, Dalí’s richly drawn visions of giant eyeballs, masked men, oversized scissors and dripping wagon wheels proved to be some of most memorable moments in the film, which became a box-office hit.
Dalí’s excursions into moviemaking are not explored in Dalíland, which is set many decades after he dipped his toe into the industry's stormy waters. But Harron’s portrait of the artist as an old man remains a compelling piece. Examining the later years of an artist whose greatest achievements and fame are behind him but who continues to thrive in his own particular way, when in the right hands, is the kind of stuff that makes for an engrossing movie.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.