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Daliland 1.jpg

TIFF 2022 Review: ‘Daliland’ Brings an Iconic Artist to Life but Fails to Live Up to His Vision

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 18, 2022 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 18, 2022 |

Daliland 1.jpg

There are few artists so instantly recognizable as Salvator Dalí. While his work helped to redefine 20th century surrealism, his longest-lasting legacy might be as a celebrity. His eccentricities and lavish lifestyle made him a tabloid favorite who divided public and critical opinion. By the 1970s, he was spending most of his time in New York. His artistic output was declining while his expenses soared through the roof. The parties remained lavish but his reputation as one of the greats began to decline. How does a legend cope when he is towards the end of his life?

Canadian director Mary Harron is an underrated figure in the genre of the biopic. While her best-known work remains her pitch-perfect adaptation of American Psycho, the lion’s share of her filmmaking output focuses on the lesser-told tales of figures of mixed repute. Her debut, the sinfully underrated I Shot Andy Warhol, examined the troubled inner workings of radical feminist and would-be assassin Valerie Solanas. The Notorious Bettie Page turned the pin-up icon’s life into giddy sex positivity in the face of puritanical hypocrisy. Overshadowed by some Tarantino bloke, her take on the Manson family, Charlie Says, brought empathy to the lives of the drug-addled groupies who were forced to confront the horrors they enacted in his name. Biopics are stories set on rails, encouraged never to stray from the rigidity of the formula. Harron’s work rejects that, more fascinated by pricky questions of ‘why’ than ‘how.’ She would seem to be the ideal storyteller to taker on the Dalís. So it’s a shame that Dalíland feels so conventional and lacking in ambition.

Salvador (Ben Kingsley) and Gala Dalí (Barbara Sukowa) surrounded themselves with fascinating figures of the art world and wider realms of fame. It feels like such a waste to make the film’s POV character a fictional boring white dude who falls into their world. Christopher Briney plays James, a gallery assistant who stumbles into the position of artist’s flunky. While Dalí struggles to create, Gala is chasing a young actor as her newest in a long string of lovers. James meets a boring hanger-on and begins an affair but doesn’t seem motivated much beyond orbiting the Dalí star at all points. In a film where we have Alice Cooper as a character (yes, he was friends with Dalí) as well as the stunning Andreja Pejić as Amanda Lear, it’s bemusing as to why neither of them could be our avatar into the Dalí circus. It especially feels like a wasted opportunity not to center Pejić, who has lascivious charm to spare.

Artist biopics often struggle to truly convey the power of a subject’s work and the alchemy of their process. Julie Taymor pulled it off with Frida by blending her reality with her decidedly unreal paintings. Dalíland feels constrained by the fact that they clearly couldn’t get the rights to show any of Dalí’s instantly familiar pieces (really, the small budget of the entire production is often too obvious, especially in poorly executed day-for-night shots). There’s one moment where that limitation makes for something truly powerful but otherwise we’re left with nothing that feels forceful enough in the way that Dalí’s art was. A flashback of him painting what I assume is supposed to be ‘The Persistence of Memory’ goes full Walk Hard by having the young Dalí (played by Ezra Miller, yikes) imagine his clock melting off the walls. How do you take the story of a surrealist genius and get beige like this?

What brings life to this sad lack of ambition are the two leads. Kingsley, a man who knows a thing or two about theatricality, relishes in Dalí’s performativity but doesn’t let that overwhelm the fear in the heart of this aging man who sees death around the corner. His Dalí is tired, disconnected from everyone aside from his work and his wife. Barbara Sukowa is one of the undisputed legends of German cinema, having worked with the likes of Margarethe von Trotta and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. She’s perfect for the tempestuous Gala, a micro-manager upon whom her husband is deeply dependent, even as she rubs her extra-marital affairs with younger men in his face. People love to say that behind every great man is a woman doing all the work, although here, there’s a woman keeping him in line while falling off the rails herself. Sadly, the film often sacrifices precious time with this pair in favor of its dull pretty boy lead, and, of course, it’s him who gets the big satisfying conclusion.

It’s all so disappointing because there are glimmers of what makes Harron such a talent. Gala’s narrative, that of a woman who is painfully aware that she’ll forever be defined by her role as a wife to a ‘genius,’ has plenty of potential for something more in line with Harron’s previous work. She’s at her best when she takes the feminine perspective amid a sea of men and gives it room to shine. Biopics love ‘great men’ and their supportive spouses and all too frequently add nothing new to that dynamic. Yet Gala doesn’t really get to be much here beyond that assigned role she resents.

Dalíland ended up being the biggest disappointment of TIFF for me. It always sucks when a filmmaker you adore hits a roadblock. I can’t help but wonder if, had she been given a budget worthy of her talents, we would have gotten a more rounded portrait of a pair who never did anything by halves. As it is, the end result we have is dishearteningly lacking in scope.

Dalíland premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It currently does not have a release date.