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Canadian director Mary Harron’s Daliland opens with grainy footage from a 1957 appearance by the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali on the popular American game show What’s My Line?
Dali is a mystery guest and blindfolded panelists pose yes-or-no questions to help identify his work as a famed artist. As the guessing game starts, a mischievous Dali answers “yes” to virtually every question.
“Are you a leading man?” panelist Arlene Francis asks at one point. “Yes,” Dali answers, causing confusion among the studio audience and forcing the show’s host, John Daly, to overrule the artist and answer no.
And when asked if Dali is involved in any way with sports, he answers, yet again, “yes,” forcing Daly to call that answer “misleading.” But what does it matter, in today’s world of fake news and digital avatars, that the King of Surrealism distracted and confused his What’s My Line questioners?
Welcome to Daliland, Harron’s cinematic contribution to the post-truth world set to have its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival as the closing night film. Harron tells The Hollywood Reporter her movie has sought to restore the once towering artistic reputation of Dali and separate his surrealist paintings and sculptures from his Hollywood persona as a celebrity artist prone to spreading confusion, not least with forays into art world corruption.
“He was a clown in some ways, a joker. But he was a very serious artist and painted every day and believed himself in the tradition of Velasquez, or wanted to be and was a great painter,” Harron contends as she splits the difference in the on-going debate over Dali’s valuable prints, and which are real or fake.
The backdrop for Daliland is an art world that put the highest monetary value on a painting that was judged a genuine original. But Dali muddied the waters by signing thousands of sheets of otherwise blank lithograph paper and cashing in as they were sold off by subordinates.
The problem was a flood of Dalí lithograph forgeries passed off as originals soon swamped the art market, and landed the artist and his entourage in a damaging scandal.
“They weren’t trying to do fake versions of his art, but they allowed this fraud to happen by turning a blind eye,” Harron argues about Dali, a skilled distorter of reality through his surrealist creations, and also through allowing his art to be imitated and sold off by forgers and swindlers.
“I don’t know if that says anything about his attitude to art as much as it does for Gala’s greed and carelessness,” the director adds. And it says much about art world in 1974, the year Daliland is mostly set as a 70-year-old Dalí and his mercurial wife and muse Gala Dali — played by Barbara Sukowa — are living at the St Regis Hotel in New York City and profiting as a wider art world enjoys boom times.
“Anytime there’s a gold rush, there’s corruption around it,” Harron points out about Dali’s artistic output, real prints or fake.
The coming-of-age story in Daliland has Ezra Miller playing a younger Dali, while the portrait of crisis for Dali in later life has Ben Kingsley playing the older artist.
Harron said Miller was initially cast to play the role of James, the young art enthusiast who finds himself in the middle of Dalí the elder’s life and art world. But Miller couldn’t play James when the actor, who goes by they/them pronouns, were set instead to star as Credence Barebones in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.
So the role of James went eventually to newcomer Christopher Briney (The Summer I Turned Pretty), and Miller was instead offered the smaller role of young Dali that appears through a series of flashbacks.
“They arrived on set with a completely realized performance. They just dived very deep into the character, similar to how Ben Kingsley arrived on set,” Harron said of Miller’s performance of an emerging artist in Daliland.
The director doesn’t expect Miller, the star of Warners’ high-profile DC movie The Flash, to be at TIFF to help launch Daliland as they seek treatment for “complex mental health issues,” according to a recent statement. The actor has been at the center of personal and legal scandals over the past year, which have included multiple arrests.
“It’s been very distressing and I’m glad that they have sought treatment and I don’t think they should be doing anything besides getting treatment right now,” Harron says.
Miller and Kingsley playing Dali across generations is pivotal to Daliland as Harron captures the artist’s earlier years as an impassioned young man first meeting his eventual wife Gala.
“There’s the beginning of this great romance, when they were art warriors, taking on the world so passionately as she (Gala) so believed in his art and in what they were doing as kind of radical artists,” the director says of Daliland. Then there’s the later years of marriage when Dali and Gala’s seemingly unshakable bond begins to buckle and fracture.
“Someone said Gala did more than anyone to make Dali’s art possible, and more than anyone to destroy it,” Harron insists. Daliland has a scene where Gala is in the back seat of a car, being driven somewhere, and recounts first coming to America.
“That was the point where they first went to Hollywood and it started to go wrong and they were no longer Dali and Gala, it was Salvador Dali the star and she was sidelined,” Harron recalls.
Daliland is directed by Harron, written by John Walsh, and also stars Andreja Pejic and Suki Waterhouse. Edward R. Pressman, David O Sacks, Chris Curling, Daniel Brunt and Sam Pressman share producing credits.
The Toronto Film Festival runs from Sept. 8 to 18.
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