TIFF 2022: Daliland, by David Bax
Mary Harron’s Daliland opens with the classic footage of famed surrealist painter Salvador Dali appearing on a 1952 episode of the game show What’s My Line?, befuddling contestants by answering “yes” to every single question asked about him. It’s an introduction to Dali the legend as he is understood in the popular conscious. The rest of the movie will attempt to pierce through all the outlandish stories–the late life association with Alice Cooper (Mark McKenna); his wife’s affair with Jeff Fenholt (Zachary Nachbar-Seckel), the original star of Jesus Christ Superstar–and see if it’s even possible to uncover who the man really was.
Harron‘s main source of help in this mission is the great Ben Kingsley as Dali (Ezra Miller also briefly appears in the same role in a series of quick flashbacks). Kingsley’s performance is the first line of demystification. It’s not just that the screenplay (by John Walsh) has him dismissing abstract art, it’s that Kingsley lets us see that maintaining the persona of Dali and creating the work of Dali are daily tasks, even if the former proves counterproductive to the latter when it comes to hosting near-daily costly parties during his stay in New York City, where the naive young James (Christopher Briney) has been hired as his short term assistant.
Our Dali’s gripe with the abstractionists dovetails with Harron’s and the movie’s own point of view. No matter how one tries to distort and question the truth–be it through painting or through personal presentation–it will always exist. There is one single, undeniable truth at the bottom of everything.
Harron being Harron, she’s going to pursue that truth about Dali through physicality. In all of her best work, from American Psycho to the Alias Grace miniseries to the underrated Manson family exploration Charlie Says, she’s always been a carnal director, eager to make tangible the way that bodies interact, not only with one another but with physical objects in the world around them. Daliland doesn’t have the violence featured in those other projects but there’s plenty of sex and, beyond that, she even makes us feel things like the wax Dali rubs into his mustache to achieve his trademark look.
Whether or not Harron (along with Walsh and Kingsley) actually succeeds at uncovering the real Salvador Dali isn’t the actual point. Through the eyes of James, we become convinced that there is such a human being. Myths, like conspiracy theories, are hard to disprove. Daliland says the effort is still worthwhile.