Dali Land, another movie with Kingsley’s travelling talent

dali land

Be it the protagonist in ‘Gandhi’ or Darwan Singh, the instructor in ‘Learning to Drive’ or Itzhak  Stern, the Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor in ‘Schindler’s List’, Ben Kingsley is a different persona to have in his extraordinary way when it comes to Cinema. It’s not different from earlier when he appeared as Salvador Dali, the most renowned mercurial Surrealist artist the world has ever seen, in Daliland, the latest movie of Mary Harron which had its world premiere recently at the Toronto International Film Festival 2022.

The movie is based mainly on the events through the eyes of James, a young gallery worker appointed for art exhibitions. Dali and his muse and wife Gala look at James in different ways. If Dali likes his insight and veneration, Gala gets fancied with his youthful carriage and cherubic face. During the two weeks of the New York Exhibition, Alice Cooper (born Vincent Furnier – later shot into fame as The Godfather of Shock Rock) gets into contact with Dali and they become a super pair in their quirkiness. They were together in many activities. They ate, drank and basked in the glory of each other’s individualism. The unexplainable relationship reaches such a stage that Dali decides to turn Cooper into a hologram- First Cylindric Chromo Hologram Portrait of Alice Cooper’s Brain. As time passes, Dali’s coterie takes advantage of such vulnerable situations and commits fraud all around for their benefit.

Eight years ago when a proposal to make a movie on Salvador Dali, the high-flown controversial surrealist Spanish artist, Mary Harron was in two minds and quite hesitant to respond to that call. It was not long after the making of I Shot Andy Warhol, a movie on  Andy Warhol, an American visual artist and exponent of pop art. When she discussed the matter with John Walsh, her husband and screenwriter, he highlighted two crucial elements in favour of going ahead. They were the terror of death and aging that hounded the giant of the surrealist milieu and the untrodden and half-unseen world of the strange relationship with Gala, his muse and wife. After brainstorming, they decided to go for it, wielding the narrative thrust onto those two crucial points and a little less on the art fraud of forging his signatures on hundreds of blank lithographs. It’s a reconstruction like what she did with I Shot Andy Warhol.

Dali and Gala had an extraordinary married life. Gala, who had started as a business manager of Dali, managed his finances all the time. Dali was willfully unconventional and nonconformist in appearance and lifestyle and always needed help to fall back on. Since she helped him steer clear of insolvency Dali considered him very dear to him despite her idiosyncrasies. To a great extent, Gala supported his extravagant lifestyle and started enjoying it by being a part of it. She, on one side, engaged in extramarital affairs and closed her eyes towards his cunctations and making advances at younger muses. Gala recruited a lot of handsome boys to the couple’s entourage. James was among such recruits intended to help him out in his New York Show, in whose point of view the movie goes forward.

On the other hand, he added every young woman he met on his way to the list. It was a give-and-take-like, mutually beneficial but to a great extent, greed from Gala’s side played its part. James was one among such recruits who led the story. He diplomatically declined her advances and concentrated on his assignments. At one point James becomes happy that his boss always addresses him by a pet name but gets disappointed when someone reveals that he calls everyone by that name. Dali’s flamboyant and eccentric public life congruent with his surrealistic creations often drew more attention and became a subject of talk at that time. The art fraud contrived by his associates by getting his signatures on thousands of blank lithographs took another turn in his life. As a result, the authenticity of his latest works has also been challenged and controversial.

The general pips that invariably affect the biopics have their say in Daliland too that it left out many important events from the protagonist’s life. As we learned from many press meetings and other gatherings, Mary Harron, the director of the movie repeatedly declares that it was not her intention to tell a life long story of Salvador Dali but the later years of strange and fascinating relationship with Gala that led to the stress and fracture of an otherwise successful artist’s life.

For Mary Harron, the Canadian-born filmmaker, it was a reunion with Edward Pressman, her old producer of American Psycho (2000), when he suggested her a project on Salvador Dali. That was a time she was busy with a lot of Netflix projects. Since her previous work, I Shot Andy Warhol, was a biopic drama film she didn’t attach much importance to that suggestion. But, when John C Walsh, her husband, highlighted a different story angle of the terror of death faced by the artist and the aging problems that derailed his relationship with Gala she thought of trying a hand at that narrative thrust. It took nine years to bring out this movie about strange relationships.

Sir Ben Kingsley has done marvelous work which is very convincing and seemly for a character who often goes erratic. In a press meet, Kingsley revealed that it was as usual a challenging offer for him to get. How a genius like Salvador Dali gets terrified of mortality and moves slowly to physical and mental infirmity was literally a risk-taking for him. His public life was like an inextricable maze we used to see in his painting. The story goes around mostly 1974 which is a decade and a half prior to his death. Seven projects in the pipeline Kingsley smilingly said, ”I enjoy working with accents! I tried to create a portrait of Dali with his fearlessness. From the last day of the shoot, I started missing Dali. It was like a piece of elastic shrank to its original length.” He also felt like Dali was behind him to encourage taking risks as an actor. Like any other creation on canvas Dali’s personal life spreads around vast expanses.

Barbara Sukowa, a well-known actor and singer from Germany and winner of best actress awards from Venice and Cannes Festivals, has taken all the shine as Gala, the artist’s muse and dominating wife, throughout the movie. Christopher Briney is the charming young man James in the film with a surprisingly impressive debut performance. His exceptional style will undoubtedly go places in the future.

Salvador Dali Foundation, created by the artist himself, has frowned upon the movie and claimed that the film didn’t seek approval for the rights. Although they contacted the movie producers insisting on their clearance, the latter did not give a hoot to the claim. The Catalonian-based foundation looks after three museums as a protector of Dali’s works and images. When this was brought to the attention of the producers, their spokesman revealed that the film didn’t use any material protected by the copyright and that what they did all are within the rights of an individual to tell the story of any celebrity. Also, the film never displayed anything derogatory about the artist and they all deem him with deep respect.

Although Daliland had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival 2022 last month, it still awaits theatre releases worldwide.

Suresh Nellikode is a journalist and film critic

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