Greetings again from the darkness. Sure, it’s an unusual approach; however, when it comes to Salvador Dali, the eccentric and iconic Spanish surrealist, a ‘normal’ introduction simply won’t do. Director Mary Harron (I SHOT ANDY WARHOL 1996, AMERICAN PSYCHO 2000, THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE 2005) shrewdly opts for an opening scene of the artist appearing on the classic TV game show, “What’s My Line?”. Lead actor Ben Kingsley (Oscar winner for GANDHI, 1982) has been superimposed over the familiar archival footage as he mimics the artist’s actual answers more than 60 years ago.
Screenwriter John Walsh (director Harron’s husband) structures the story around James (newcomer Christopher Briney), a young man Dali selects as his new assistant … and nicknames San Sebastian. This approach makes some sense as Dali was seemingly always on display and viewed as a curiosity to most. Yet James turns out to be the least interesting character on screen, and we wish for less of him and more of Dali, or Dali’s wife Gala, or Dali’s transgender nurse and muse Amanda Lear (Andreja Pejic), or even the flashbacks with Ezra Miller and Avital Lvova as young Dali and Gala.
It’s 1974 and “Welcome to Daliland” is how James is first invited into the St. Regis Hotel suite where Dali spent winters in New York City for forty years. Production Designer Isona Rigau captures the essence of the hotel, especially during the infamous parties thrown by Dali … even as Gala urged him to focus on work. Gala, played exceedingly well by Barbara Sukowa (HANNAH ARENDT, 2012), and Dali, show us the ups and downs of a codependent arrangement. She is shown pushing him towards success, and also at least partially responsible for his burnout and decline. Money was a constant battle as both enjoyed the high life. Dali loved the parties, while Gala enjoyed the company of younger men. The long-rumored signatures on blank canvas and the uncashed personal checks with the valuable signature are both addressed here.
Although it’s been forty years since Sir Ben Kingsley won his Oscar, he still knows how to seize a character and fill the screen. Not only does he embrace the pumped-up ego of a genius, he also conveys the worst fear of an artist – a tremor in his painting hand … although, to be fair, his fear of abandonment might have been even stronger. This is a man who knows he’s approaching the end of his career and life, but chooses to live until he can’t.
The flashbacks and the artsy moments where Dali conducts the wind from atop a seaside cliff are creative inserts worthy of one viewed as an icon, rather than as a man. Watching Dali hum while he works, or dominate a moment with his verbosity, or become emotional with Gala, all combine to provide a glimpse into Dali, the man and the artist.
In theaters and On Demand beginning June 9, 2023