There’s a genre I like so much I can never get enough of it — I call it the Biopic About Someone You Wouldn’t Make a Biopic About. The form came into existence, in a certain way, with “Sid and Nancy,” but it was all but patented by the screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who planted it on the map, in 1994, with “Ed Wood” (still the “Citizen Kane” of the genre), then went on to script “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “Man on the Moon” (about Andy Kaufman), “Big Eyes” (about the painter Walter Keane and his wife, Margaret, who turned out to be the painter behind the throne), and “Dolemite Is My Name” (about the fluky hustler-comedian Ray Moore). There have been films in the genre from other quarters, like Paul Schrader’s superb “Auto Focus” (about the TV star Bob Crane and his video-fetish sex life), going right up through the recent Toronto Film Festival sensation “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.”
But there’s one director who has been a giant of this genre, even if people don’t tend to think of her that way. That’s Mary Harron, the wickedly gifted maverick who turns out-of-the-box biopic voyeurism into an artful obsession. You get the feeling that Harron, who started out as a punk music journalist, doesn’t care about making the respectable movies she’s supposed to be making. She makes movies about the people who fascinate her. Her first feature was “I Shot Andy Warhol” (1996), and it’s still a thriller, a movie that dared to treat Warhol‘s demented would-be assassin Valerie Solanas as a feminist heroine (without soft-pedaling in any way how unhinged she was), even as it gave us the best portrait of life inside the Factory that has ever been filmed. Since then, Harron’s movies have included the delectable and revealing “The Notorious Bettie Page,” the fearless TV-movie “Anna Nicole” (about Anne Nicole Smith), and “Charlie Says” (about Charles Manson and life inside the Family, which Harron caught as convincingly as she did Warhol’s denizens).
Her new film is “Dalíland,” about the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí, and you might say that Dalí, unlike most of those others, is a perfectly obvious, right-down-the-middle-of-the-plate subject for a biopic, considering that he was, along with Picasso, the most famous painter of his time. But the offbeat/behind-the-curtain aspect of “Dalíland” is that the movie is about Dalí when he was an old man (he’s played in the film by Sir Ben Kingsley), a ravaged but still forbidding carouser who, in his early 70s, had made it his brand to treat life as a never-ending act of surrealist theater.
In “Dalíland,” there are two flashbacks to the young Dalí (where he’s played by Ezra Miller, who looks uncannily like him), but the heart of the movie is a wide-eyed eavesdrop into the man Dalí became — and therefore, perhaps, always was — once he’d moved past the sweet spot of his early celebrity and controversial genius. That’s the film’s elevated-tabloid Harronesque element: It’s a portrait of the artist as whatever-happened-to? relic. On that score, it’s both a highly entertaining movie and, by the end, a haunting one. It revels in Dalí’s artifice even as it mercilessly peels away his layers.
Harron, working from a script by John C. Walsh, opens the movie on a droll note, with a clip of Dali from the ’50s on the TV panel game show “What’s My Line?,” where he answers every question (“Are you a leading man?”) with the same gruff “Yes.” We then cut to New York City in 1974, where James (Christopher Briney), an art-school dropout and assistant/ apprentice/gofer at the Dufresne Gallery, has been tasked with delivering a bundle of cash to Gala (Barbara Sukowa), Dalí’s wife, at their suite in the St. Regis Hotel. The two stay there each winter, in the same suite, for $20,000 a month, and as soon as the door opens we’re whisked into what hits us like an alternate universe.
There’s a party going on, but it’s the middle of the day, and there, at the center of it all, stands Dalí, larger-than-life, in his signature flowing locks and long curly dada caterpillar of a mustache, holding court in a way that’s at once inviting and forbidding. He dresses in frilly shirts and florid long coats, like some elderly swashbuckling Spanish space cowboy. He speaks only in pensées and refers to himself only in the third person, as “Dalí.” Everyone else calls him Dalí too. He’s not just a person; he’s a concept. Every moment is suffused with the sense that you’re in the presence of something darkly magical, the great Dalí, who in the eyes of Dalí is the only artist of his time who can be compared to the seminal artists in history.
Interestingly, this perception, while an outgrowth of his megalomania, is also based on the fact that he’s a representational painter. That’s part of what made Dalí such a popular artist, even as the critics couldn’t make up their minds about him. “The Persistence of Memory,” with its imaginary topography and melting watch faces, may be a surrealist vision, but there’s a delicious concreteness to it. It’s as real as a dream. Dalí loathes abstract painting, to the point of regarding it as a form of decadence. (In that sense, he has something in common with the Nazis.) He sees himself as the last classicist, maintaining touch with the world before modernity. But, of course, his art is all about the modern mind — the insanity of what everyday experience was becoming in the 20th century. He’s really the first pop artist, so he’s a contradiction, a prankster of paradox. And he has orchestrated his entire existence to fashion that into a form of theater.
Kingsley plays him with big dark eyes that can be volcanic in their rage, then look, a moment later, like they’re weeping, even as they twinkle with merriment. Is this Dalí a put-on, or is he actually crazy? (The answer might be both.) Dalí presides over his parties, which are stocked with aging aristocrats and gorgeous young studs and debutantes, like an imperious ogre who is also a god. He seems, at a glance, like a quintessential aging parasite, almost like a character out of de Sade. His latest paramour is Amanda (Anreja Pejic), a transgender beauty with a husky knowing voice, but Dalí, as we learn, does not have sex (though he does like to watch).
His wife makes up for what he doesn’t do. Gala, played by the formidable Barbara Sukowa, is Dalí’s muse, agent, matriarch, tormenter, and partner in crime. The two fight like cats and dogs, but this is the fuel for his art. He’s working on a new show, with a deadline three weeks away, and only Gala has the power to make him hunker down and finish it. At the same time, she’s off on her own, reveling in her boy toys. She’s 10 years older than Dalí (which makes her, at the time the film is set, 80 years old), but she likes her men young and hot. Her new plaything is Jeff Fenholt (Zachary Nachbar-Seckel), who is playing the title role in the original Broadway production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and who also has ambitions to become a pop musician, a desire that Gala is only too happy to bankroll.
James, the Dufresne courier, is warned about Gala; if he’s not careful, she’ll eat him alive. He holds his ground, resisting her advances, despite the fact that he’s good-looking in a Gerard Malanga/Jim Morrison sort of way. That his looks gain him instant entrée is the tipoff that the Dalí demimonde, with its daily cocktail of drugs and booze and fame, its sexual ambiguity, its bed-hopping vipers and hangers-on, really is a version of the Warhol Factory, only in this case there’s no Factory; there’s just Dalí in the St. Regis, trying to squeeze out another show. He likes James, grasps that he’s trustworthy, and offers him a chance to be his assistant for these few weeks. Christopher Briney, whose only previous credit is appearing on the Amazon series “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” is a very good actor who invests James with a presence of mind and a wily curiosity that becomes a stand-in for our own. Yet we can’t say that we have a full-scale investment in this protagonist behind his function as a tour guide.
The Salvador Dalí of “Dalíland” is a man who uses art to try to transcend the fact that he’s a human being. That’s why even his mustache is a work of art. (We get to see him dye and wax it into a piece of sculpture.) He and Gala play at being the king of queen of their own stratosphere, but the truth, which the movie uncovers step by step, is grubbier. These two are love-hate soulmates, but they’ve also joined in a desperate conspiracy to prop up Dalí’s legend like a hologram. The film flashes back to when they met, and Ezra Miller’s performance is vivid (in part because the scandal of Miller’s offscreen behavior almost plays into it). There’s also a scene where the young Gala (Avital Lvova) reacts, in 1931, to Dalí’s having just painted “The Persistence of Memory,” though as deftly written as the scene is, it can’t help but spotlight the fact that Harron wasn’t able to get the rights to display Dalí’s paintings.
The film’s ’70s setting allows it to be a portrait of the moment when the art world underwent its tectonic shift, fusing with the money culture, becoming a kind of piggy bank for the wealthy. And Dalí and Gala have, in their way, played into this. They’re exploiters of Dalí’s legend who have, in turn, been exploited. Yet that’s partly because of a grand paradox that’s at the heart of the movie: Dalí, like Warhol, seems to be a peerless marketer of his own celebrity, yet in Dalí’s case the image is so outrageous that it has overtaken and even defeated the art. No one takes him seriously anymore; when his show finally opens, with some vital work in it, most of the major critics don’t even bother to review it. “Dalíland” starts off as a lip-smacking tour of the art world’s most delirious sideshow. But it turns into a deadpan tragedy about a man who made his very identity into a work of art, and in doing so squeezed life itself right off the canvas.