Drawing from mostly speculative accounts of Salvador Dali’s student days, “Little Ashes” fashions a soggy account of what might have been between the self-styled surrealist and Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, implying ways their unrequited homosexual affair informed their respective careers. The first of multiple Dali-themed pics to actually make it to the screen, this English-language production is blessed with the good fortune of star Robert Pattinson’s blossoming into an overnight sensation, potentially luring a few curious “Twilight” fans to its otherwise limited gay and culturally inclined target aud.
Expanding on racy suggestions made in Ian Gibson’s biographies of both Lorca and Dali, first-time screenwriter Philippa Goslett mines the rich (and less thoroughly documented) period in Dali’s life when he was enrolled at Madrid’s Residencia de Estudiantes, a progressive arts school where the young painter rubbed elbows with the likes of Luis Bunuel (Matthew McNulty) and Lorca (Javier Beltran). The latter clearly covets a more serious sort of frottage, falling for the pompously dressed Dali from the moment he arrives, and early scenes find the two budding talents coyly eyeing one another, endearingly awkward in their advances.
For those more familiar with the shameless stuntsmanship of Dali’s late career, director Paul Morrison presents a very different impression here: Dali is cocky about his talent but uncertain in his own skin, an idea depicted perhaps too literally in a montage (already being featured online as the “Twilight” star’s “nude scene”) in which he poses with legs crossed and naughty bits tucked away, examining his androgynous reflection before a mirror. His flirtation with Lorca is mutual, but Dali is the one who seems reluctant to cross the line.
Their courtship proceeds all the more slowly in the presence of Bunuel, who serves as both Lorca’s roommate and the pic’s mouthpiece for the homophobia of the period, frequently erupting in angry tirades against openly gay couples who cross his path. But Morrison fails to capture any sexual tension, depriving “Little Ashes” of the spark that might have put it on par with Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” or stories of its ilk.
When Dali and Lorca finally kiss during a latenight swim, Morrison breaks out the slow motion and artfully moonlit male flesh but misses the emotional fireworks. Still standing in their way is Lorca’s female companion (Marina Gatell), who devises a plan to seduce the poet, leading to the film’s most provocative scene, in which all three characters are present for Lorca’s sexual initiation.
The historically heretical moment marks a turning point for Dali, who rushes off to Paris to reinvent himself, cementing Lorca as the story’s true protagonist. It is here, in the wake of Dali’s rejection, that Lorca finds the courage to embrace his homosexuality, while the painter becomes a victim of his own narcissism (reflected in his evolving hairstyles and increasingly outre moustache).
But the film is far from over, transitioning into a slow procession of scenes documenting the pair’s separate artistic achievements (shown through a mix of archival footage and hokey newsreel-style re-creations), with Pattinson transitioning into a more flamboyant characterization. A decade-later reunion scene feels decidedly anticlimactic, and the film relies instead on tragedy for its big emotional payoff.
For much of its running time, “Little Ashes” wavers between the polite, stuffy style of a “Masterpiece Theater” production and the more pointed agenda of gay indie cinema, with real Spanish locations classing up the otherwise low-budget affair. Acting is stagy and hindered by thick Spanish accents: Beltran, who plays Lorca, is wonderfully expressive but occasionally unintelligible.