Auntie Mame’s story was told by her doting nephew, Patrick Dennis. Malcolm X’s biographer was Alex Haley, Jr. Had Haley left it to Malcolm to tell it, he could have enjoyed the limelight due him as originator of the ground-breaking TV series “Roots.” In “Daliland,” the artist Dali’s story is a pastiche of Clip Art quirks, clerks, and jerks, assembled by a factotum, albeit a fetchingly dulcet one named James Linton (Christopher Briney.) James is not that guy who on a whim quit high school, only to take a job sweeping up hair in a salon, hoping in vain for something better to come along, nor the barista greeting you chirpily each morning as he comps your pour over, though he could have been both. James Linton is the messenger who runs into Dali (Sir Ben Kingsley) while he delivers a suitcase of cash from an art gallery where he is the 1970s version of a gig worker. When Dali glimpses James’ seraphim-like face and cannot turn away, you think, “Oh no, not again!” This can’t end well for the character who while delivering thousands in cash to Dali’s wife messages his sidelong take of Dali to the audience. Telling a luminary’s story while looking up to him signals a dimly discernible future that precludes seeing your own name up in lights. James is screenwriter John C. Walsh’s sitting duck. Walsh’s wife Mary Harron made her reputation as director of the film “I Shot Andy Warhol” in 1996. If she was banking on Daliland having the same kind of draw in 2023, she may have overplayed her hand. There’s that famous story about Voltaire, who was a great success at the first orgy he was invited to, and was therefore invited back. Voltaire declined the second invite, saying, “Ah, no, my good friends, the first time I went as a philosopher; the second time would be as a pervert.”
The tragedy here, apart from the dereliction in not acknowledging that Dali was a convinced fascist, is that Briney is a better actor than his character James Linton deserves. Linton smiles obligingly instead of talking his way through the awkward moments, rises to his righteous full stature when calling out wrongdoers, and aportions his intelligence in discreet parcels, so as not to embarrass his superiors. He does all the right things except one: he overestimates the extent to which Dali’s lavishing attention on him translates into the artist giving a fast-flying fig about the young man’s life or prospects. As much as this shocks James, it surprises the audience not one bit. Christopher Briney deserves a better, more layered character. Since we’ve seen this approaching train wreck so frequently, concern is not so much about the content itself, as the wrongheaded wager that audiences could gin up any interest in attending such a so-last-century orgy a second time.
Regarding his own sex life, Kingsley makes good on the line that “Dali likes to watch,” and it could be argued that this preference extends to the actor’s artistic diffidence as it applies to the “act and react” dialectic that rules over his profession. Kingsley, as Dali, acts by refusing to react. That’s a choice you could surely count on his character to commit to, even if you can’t predict much else about what Dali would do, let alone say. When it comes to saying, Kingsley, whose physiognomy is perfectly suited to play Dali, says little, including about the artist’s fascist proclivities, and (predictably) when James faces a crisis in his hoped-for art marketing career.
Gala (Barbara Sukowa), Dali’s wife, grabs the spotlight. If she is Dali’s anchor in a surround rife with sea monsters, we forgive her her bi-polar trespasses (which mostly issue from an insatiable libido), not to mention her excesses (a soft spot, as it were, for the young men who spend their afternoons penetrating the denizens of high society’s lowlife with snouts planted in the troughs at Dali’s and Gala’s $20,000/month suite at the Hotel St. Regis. She is the one character we could care about, if only because Dali does, or doesn’t, or does once again.
The screenwriter is John C. Walsh, Harron’s husband, and because he offers us so little of substance to sink our teeth into, you get the uneasy feeling that he felt only marginally invested in seeing this film come to fruition. Could Walsh’s ambivalence signal that Dali’s life was insubstantial? Did he owe his catapult to success and notoriety to his marketable whimsy, martinet wife, and a bourgeois culture mucking around in the detritus of its own banality to create meaning when art itself was not enough to keep the party going? How inviting is that gambit once you’ve been privy to more than one telling? You decide.