“Dalíland” – The Fantastical World Where Salvador Dali Lives
Dalíland is the fantastical world in which Salvador Dalí lives, as seen through the eyes of his newly hired young assistant James, when he steps into the Spanish painter’s lavish suite at the St Regis Hotel in New York City to find it crowded with colorful characters dancing and drinking champagne. The year is 1974. This is the set-up of the movie titled Dalíland, directed by Mary Harron and starring Ben Kingsley as Dalí.
Canadian filmmaker Harron, who has directed movies like I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and American Psycho (2000), both of them also set mostly in New York, said she was thrilled to be back in her old hometown, when she introduced her latest work as the closing night feature of the Toronto International Film Festival on September 17, 2022.
Now that Dalíland has been released in theaters and on streaming platforms, audiences will be able to step into Dalí’s world as well and get some insight into the man behind the famous artist.
Ben Kingsley said during video interviews at TIFF: “It was a surprise to be offered the role of such a monumental intellect and artist, a very intelligent man, immensely witty and utterly fearless. He was exhilarating and exhausting to play, as I had anticipated he would be. I imagine Dalí would be quite a difficult talent to digest today, but there was a part of him that was undigestible, take it or leave it, and that’s what I admired about him. He had an ontological security that defied fashion and zeitgeist, he was what he was. Mary succeeded in showing Dalí in his environment, with his showmanship that was well documented, and the film has an unpredictable quality to reflect his personality.”
The artist’s assistant James is played by Christopher Briney, whom Harron cast when he was still in drama school at New York’s Pace University, and who now plays Conrad in the TV series The Summer I Turned Pretty, created by Jenny Han from her 2009 novel. Kingsley praised his costar: “We really must applaud Chris Briney’s performance, because the film is a view of Dalí through the eyes of somebody who is constantly surprised and seduced by the world that he finds himself in.”
James is a fictional character, but it is implied that there were many such young men in Dalí’s life. The painter calls him Saint Sebastian, because his face reminds him of a Renaissance painting. Sebastian was the third century Christian martyr killed by Roman authorities and often depicted tied up bare-chested to a pillar or a tree and shot through with arrows. The most famous of such paintings was done by Andrea Mantegna in 1480.
Briney explained in an interview for the film’s production notes: “James is the lens through which the story is told, he is the audience’s perspective, as he’s taken through this surreal dreamworld and the sort of people that Dalí surrounds himself with. Salvador Dalí was in my textbooks, but I had very little understanding of the density of his world and of his work. He was courageous beyond the definition of the word, he took chances on a transcendental level, he really pushed the limits and opened up a lot of people’s eyes. James realizes that you have to respect (Dalí’s wife and muse) Gala because she does light the fire underneath Dalí and helps him create his art.”
Mary Harron, who co-wrote the script with her husband John C. Walsh, commented in the production notes: “Dalí and Gala’s marriage was obviously much more tempestuous than ours, it was really stormy and legendary. I’ve heard it said that Gala did more than anyone else to foster Dalí’s career and more than anyone else to damage it. And that’s an interesting paradox.”
The film takes us on flashback to Spain on a Costa Brava beach in Catalonia during the summer of 1929 when a young Dalí (Ezra Miller) meets Gala, a Russian immigrant ten years his senior, who at the time is married to Surrealist poet Paul Éluard.
A flash forward to 1985 shows us James visiting Dalí in the hospital of his hometown of Figueres in Catalonia, the artist sick and despondent after the death of Gala in 1982. Another visitor is Amanda Lear, a real-life muse of Dalí whom he met in a French nightclub in London in 1965, “when she was a he.” At the time of her visit she has just published her autobiographical book My Life with Dalí.
The director said: “The great thing about Dalí was that he loved and celebrated people who were trans, in some way he identified with any kind of gender fluidity. And you’ve got to honor that, so it was very important for me to cast an actor who was also trans. Then Andreja Pejić came in. She’s so astoundingly beautiful, charming and delicate, but also very European. She has that sense of mystery and the kind of looks, aura and enigmatic quality of a French movie star of the 70s like Catherine Deneuve.”
Pejić, a fashion model born in Bosnia and raised in Melbourne Australia, talked about playing Amanda Lear at the Dalíland premiere in Toronto: “She’s such an icon in the fashion industry in Europe. I knew about her when I was 12-years-old, I was a big fan and I just wanted to meet her. That was my goal, and tell her how inspirational she was to my development into the woman I am today. But I never thought that I would be playing her in a movie, so it was really intimidating. I wanted to capture her charisma, and her special relationship with Dalí, between a muse and an artist. He was in love with her as a daughter in a spiritual way, in a creative way, in a romantic way. I had some experience of that, being a model and the muse of (fashion designer) Jean-Paul Gaultier, who reminds you of Dalí in a lot of ways. So I could draw on those experiences.”
French singer Amanda Lear is still alive today at age 83, so Pejić concluded, “I hope she’ll enjoy this.”