The late surrealist artist Salvador Dalí was many things. He was a painter, a filmmaker, and, especially in his later years, the center of social attention in New York City. It is in this 1973 world where director Mary Harron’s Dalíland primarily sets itself as we observe an older Dalí (Ben Kingsley) through the eyes of a young gallery assistant named James (Christopher Briney). Writer John Walsh’s screenplay provides some occasional flashbacks where both detachedly observe the artist in his younger years, played by a yet-to-be-fully mustached Ezra Miller, though the main focus often is less about Dalí and more about the characters that surround him. Central to this is his wife Gala (Barbara Sukowa) who serves as both his primary supporter and, as we come to learn, one of the many that may be using him.
Such a description sounds like it could be engaging as it explores the era and posits that his later life saw him become a victim of his own success. Unfortunately, the film itself is not. For all the striking imagery that the artist created over his life, there is very little that has the same vision in this film. It is a work that feels both confined and meandering, lacking focus when it needs to as it traipses its way through a rather tepid narrative without much to say about the artist. All of its more intriguing inclinations get sanded down to paint a portrait of a man who is more caricature than character. While much of this may have been by design, as Dalí is not actually the protagonist of this story, it never justifies the narrow lens through which it views its story. All the moments of eccentricity where we get to see a glimpse inside the mind of the artist offer just enough of a tease that makes all the rest of the experience a letdown.
Much of this stems from what we get to learn about James which, most bizarrely, proves to be very little. He serves as a blank canvas, a surrogate of sorts for the audience that was not actually himself real. While this isn’t the first film to create a character out of nothing to provide an outsider’s perspective, rarely has it been one that is so superficial. We will get brief glimpses of self-discovery, a relationship here or a personal revelation there, only for them to quickly fade into the background. Making the story more superficial is how Briney, a relative newcomer most known for his role in the The Summer I Turned Pretty series, doesn’t have much range that we get to see. The lack of robust material for him to work with creates the unshakeable sense that his role starts and ends at being an entry point to the story. He is abundantly naive and painfully innocent for almost the entire film. While this is meant as a juxtaposition between him and some of the more selfish characters that have stuck themselves to Dalí, it makes it hard to really care about what it is that he is going through.
All of this brings us back to the supposed maestro himself. The enduring conundrum the film creates for itself is that it seems initially interested in exploring more of his complexities, including a brief hint of his rather unique sexual proclivities, only to smooth over anything that could even resemble a flaw. It is not the most egregious of hagiographies masquerading as biographies, but it certainly comes awfully close. There isn’t ever a moment that feels audacious as it just goes through the motions of the biopic that we’ve seen countless times before. The beginning makes this quickly reach a ceiling, both metaphorical and literal as almost all the scenes take place indoors. You’re left searching for something to latch onto, both with the characters and the setting itself, only to come up with nothing.
There is the recurring presence of Mark McKenna as famed musician Alice Cooper who provides a funny breath of fresh air, though there just isn’t anything dynamic beyond that. Kingsley seems to be having some fun with the more silly moments, but the increasingly serious ones don’t have the necessary foundation to create a compelling narrative throughline. By the time James starts to realize how corruption and greed has made its way into Dalí’s inner circle, there are only a few confrontation scenes that actually seem to grapple with that. His obliviousness ends up softening the realizations and undercuts any impact this could have once it is all pieced together. Instead, it just ends up plodding onward without any real sense of spark. It is unwilling to take any big risks or delve into the darker aspects of who Dalí was, leaving us with a one-dimensional work that is destined to slip from the mind.
If there is anything that stands out to the experience, it would come from when the story detaches itself from the present to look to the past. Yes, this is when we see Miller take on the role and begin to discover what it is that draws Dalí to art itself. These scenes are mountains more dynamic, getting you to sit up in your seat whereas most of the rest of the film felt like it was sitting back. These moments are unfortunately all incredibly fleeting, raising a broader question about whether there were more potential scenes that were cut to streamline the story or remove more of Miller. Whatever the reason, the visual presentation and tone of these scenes offered up something more that was woefully missing from the rest of the experience.
While biopics are a dime a dozen and often lacking in any sort of boldness, one would have hoped a story like this would try to chart a path that was more fitting for its subject. Alas, as it turns out, even unique historical figures are not immune from being swept up in the most superficial of genres. Despite how transgressive and inventive Dalí was as an acclaimed artist, Dalíland is content to create a story that plays it all too safe.