When Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech arrives at Madrid’s School of Fine Arts in 1922, he bears little resemblance to Salvador Dalí, the grandiose, flamboyantly mustachioed celebrity painter he would become. At the beginning of the biopic Little Ashes, young Dalí (Robert Pattinson) doesn’t look much like his fellow art students, either. His classmates wear suits, but Dalí arrives at school wearing a black costume better suited to Hamlet, complete with elaborately ruffled cuffs and collars. Even among precocious artists, Dalí is the odd man out.
Little Ashes captures three of Spain’s most renowned artists in their embryonic states, chronicling the tempestuous relationships of Dalí and two of his contemporaries, budding filmmaker Luis Buñuel (Matthew McNulty) and especially the poet/playwright Federico García Lorca (Javier Beltrán). Director Paul Morrison and screenwriter Philippa Goslett are clearly great admirers of Lorca and have strong feelings about Dalí and Buñuel, as well. But though their affection for their subjects shines through, Little Ashes struggles with the challenges that inevitably arise in gossipy biopics about famous artists.
Although Dalí and Lorca initially prove shy about their work, Buñuel brings them together and generally fires up his fellow students' ambitions. Buñuel also demonstrates a violent homophobic streak, probably to overcompensate for something the film never reveals. Lorca has a muse and sort-of girlfriend, Margarita (expressive Marina Gatell), but proves unmistakably attracted to Dalí, especially once the painter eschews foppish costumes for elegant suits. For his part, Dalí craves attention, but seems ambivalent about revealing his intimate feelings. Little Ashes includes scenes of low-key romantic farce with Dalí, Lorca and Margarita, such as an “accidental” encounter stage-managed by the painter, although it’s uncertain whom he’s trying to seduce.
Sometimes it seems every relationship biopic set between 1900 and 1950 includes a scene in which the main characters ride bicycles in their summer whites. When Lorca and Dalí take a vacation together, they swim and eventually kiss in blue-tinted moonlight. Fans of Pattinson’s vampire hunk in Twilight will drool over the way Little Ashes treats the young actor as a sex object, particularly the long panning shot over his pale frame in an old-fashioned bathing suit.
A turning point occurs when Lorca and Dalí attend a fancy bourgeois dinner party and the painter makes outrageous, drunken statements including, “I would love an enema!” In retrospect, it’s like Dalí’s beta-testing his public persona. Even though he claims to be an anarchist intent on destroying public perceptions of reality, he gradually cultivates his fame and artistic brand in a way that would anticipate Andy Warhol. Pattinson plays Dalí’s antics with self-conscious awkwardness, and it’s hard to tell whether he’s deliberately trying to convey that such outbursts were a pose, or if the actor simply cannot convey the spark of inspiration.
The filmmakers wrestle with the no-win dilemma of any English-language film involving real people who spoke another language. If English actors like Pattinson and McNulty spoke in their original accents, they’d sound inauthentic, but if they spoke Spanish, they’d alienate subtitle-adverse movie-goers. Instead, the cast’s thick Spanish-accented English can hinder the dialogue. When Lorca recites his poetry, we hear Beltrán’s English translation over his Spanish delivery while watching the dynamics between the characters. It’s hard to appreciate the meaning of the verse with so much competition for our attention.
Little Ashes offers contrasts in artistic engagement with the world. Later in the film, Buñuel accuses Lorca of essentially remaining a perpetual student by staying in Madrid, rather than joining him and Dalí in the Parisian art scene. Lorca counters that Spain needs its artists to stay home and fight for social justice. The political implications build to such importance by the film’s resolution that it’s a shame Little Ashes doesn’t flesh them out more on the front end. The film’s strengths lie in its touching tribute to Lorca that transcends typical biopic speed bumps, including inadvertently amusing lines such as, “The surrealists made such an impression on him.” I wanted to ask, what about the impressionists?