Apr 13, 2023
Mary Harron, whose latest film Dalíland screens twice at SFFILM Festival and who the festival pays tribute to on Friday, April 14, began her feature career in 1996 with I Shot Andy Warhol about the pop artist’s near-fatal encounter with deranged feminist Valeria Solanas. Harron later brought to cinematic life Bret Easton Ellis’ titular American Psycho, celebrated an iconic American pinup with The Notorious Bettie Page, explicated the life of a 19th-century murderess in her miniseries adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, and explored the lives of Manson family killers in Charlie Says.
“One of the reasons why you start a film is your curiosity about a character and how to put them on screen and how to tell that story and make that story work,” Harron says in a phone call.
“Most of my stories have had characters who are kind of outsiders in some way. And I think I’ve also been interested in sort of the price of fame that’s kind of factored in a lot of them—not all of them but a lot of them.”
Why did Harron Choose Salvador Dalí
While an artist as famous as surrealist Salvador Dalí (Ben Kingsley) may not seem to fit the definition of “outsider,” at the time Dalíland takes place in the 1970s, he has fallen out of fashion. He is still creating art and he still has an entourage that includes his great friend, model Amanda Lear (Andreja Pejic), and a young glam Alice Cooper (renamed Alex in John Walsh’s script and played by Scottish actor Mark McKenna), but his days as an art world sun that the world revolved around are past him.
“He’s not in critical favor at all, at the time of our film,” Harron says. “It was a time of abstract expression and conceptual art, and his was representational art.”
Dalíland views the artist through the eyes of James (Christopher Briney in a memorable screen debut), a young gallery worker who enters Dalí’s world when he is tasked with bringing Dalí and wife Gala (Barbara Sukowa) money. Nicknamed San Sebastian by Dalí, he becomes embedded in their household, a regular at their decadent parties, and a witness to the Dalís’ tumultuous marriage and to Dalí’s art-making both as creative impulse and necessity in keeping afloat the couple’s extravagant lifestyle.
The film’s producers originally offered Harron a very different script, one more concerned with art fraud as high-quality photo copies of Dalí’s art are passed off as genuine lithographs. Dalí’s signature is real but what he signed were blank sheets of paper before the art was reproduced. That does work its way into Dalíland as a minor subplot but the main thrust of the film is Dalí and Gala’s lives in the ‘70s as well as their marriage. (Ezra Miller, who looks remarkably like the artist, plays Dalí as a young man in flashbacks with Avital Lvova as Gala.) That’s what captured Harron’s imagination and that was the story she developed with Walsh, her husband.
“It’s first and foremost, a story of a marriage, and also a less familiar time of his career,” Harron says. “We didn’t know that Salvador Dalí spent so much time in New York in ‘70s, that he was friends with Alice Cooper, that he was part of that whole world. Everyone thinks of him as surrealism in the 1930s. (Dalíland) is about marriage and this very unexpected aspect of Dalí’s career. I’d also say it’s about an artist facing death, old age and death.”
Connections Between the Filmmaker and the Film
The milieu of the film is also one familiar to the native of Canada who arrived in New York in 1975 at 22 shortly after graduating from Cambridge University. Though she was part of the punk scene and not the high echelons of the art world inhabited by Dalí that James enters, she knows the city of that period and the adventure of being young in it.
“New York was going bankrupt; it had hit the skids,” Harron says. “But it was also a really creative, wonderful, exciting time, culturally. It was a very fun time and it was sort of the end of glam rock. It was pre-AIDS. People were very kind of casual about sex and drugs. It was more playful, I think. People weren’t as worried about consequences.
“I wanted to capture a little bit of that party atmosphere and just a moment of a young person in New York,” she adds. “When you’re young, you can get swept up in something, because you’re young and unthreatening. You can just be invited places. You step on a merry-go-round, which is what happens with James. He stepped on a merry-go-round, and at some point, he gets thrown off but it’s still a fun ride. I wanted to really show someone on this ride.”
Harron is also proud of the fact that the film introduces audiences to Dalí’s late work. Pointing out that that it is not uncommon for an artist’s late work to be discounted or dismissed—she cites Warhol, Claude Monet, and Henri Matisse as examples—she and Dalíland make the case for Dalí’s relevance well into his twilight years.
“I feel like his work is so primal, and because it is about dream imagery, everybody in every country can appreciate it,” Harron says. “Everybody can understand dream life and the strangeness of it… I hope that people look again at some of the work he was doing in ‘70s. It’s just not true that all of his great work was in the 1930s. He continued to do interesting things and be inventive until the end.”
A Tribute to Mary Harron + “Dalíland”: 8:30 PM, Fri., April 14, CGV San Francisco. Click here for further information and tickets.
Dalíland: 7:45 PM, Sat., April 15, BAMPFA. Click here for further information and tickets.
About the Author
Pam Grady is a freelance writer, whose work appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, 48 Hills, and other publications. She also has her own web site.
Stay In Touch With SFFILM
SFFILM is a nonprofit organization whose mission ensures independent voices in film are welcomed, heard, and given the resources to thrive. SFFILM works hard to bring the most exciting films and filmmakers to Bay Area movie lovers. To be the first to know what’s coming, sign up for our email alerts and watch your inbox.