Little Ashes

Ascribing sexual labels and their concomitant couplings to historical figures can be a dicey proposition at best, as a recent spate of literary biographies and fictional treatments has shown (e.g., Abraham Lincoln, Henry James). Critical reception is normally in direct proportion not only to the veracity of such claims, but to the forcefulness of their depiction.

It is to the credit of screenwriter Philippa Goslett that she risks the ire of all of Spain by uniting two of that country’s most beloved and enigmatic artists, Salvador Dali and Federico García Lorca, in a star-crossed love affair. Not content with the one iconoclastic act, she ups the ante by painting the third in their path, their equally conflicted (and Spanish-canonized) close friend Luis Buñuel (Matthew McNulty), as the jealous interloper in a de facto love triangle, which effectively morphs into a painful quadrangle with the addition of Lorca’s “girlfriend”, bourgeois would-be journo Magdalena (Amy Winehouse-doppelganger Marina Gatell). But Goslett has been no slouch on the research front, remaining surprisingly faithful to the facts.

The film is set against the backdrop of the rise of Spanish Fascism, but such details are mere coloration in a screenplay which prefers to focus on a hitherto (cinematically) untold love story. Dali (Robert Pattinson) and Lorca (Javier Beltrán) meet cute at the Residencia de estudiantes (with Barcelona standing in for Madrid, a budget-mandated sacrilege), where ossified dandy Dali fits in like a bird of paradise in a testosterone-fueled barrio. He’s a born painter, Lorca an avant-garde dilettante lurching between disciplines, all the while scribbling the nature-besotted verse which would become his métier (and reading them in the original Spanish with English overdubs as the requisite violins swell on the soundtrack). Lorca is already good friends with the macho Buñuel , but once Dali enters their orbit, the three reinforce each other’s talents, acting in various capacities as muses and supporters.

Eventually the trio is rent by divergent ideologies and personal politics. Buñuel, though virulently homophobic, becomes visibly jealous of the developing relationship between Dali and Lorca, feeling eclipsed by the weight of their passion. All three live by a dictum of total freedom and “no limits” in art and morality, in counterpoint to the repressive regime amongst which they live.

But to be oneself completely comes at a high premium. When relations between painter and poet hew inexorably to the carnal, Buñuel responds like a petulant teenager being denied entry to a club to which he’s not entirely certain he wants to belong, but which perhaps represents his own ideological limitations. Regrettably he acts out by posing as a cottager and assaulting a random gay man. Worse for lovestruck Lorca, Buñuel spirits Dali away to Paris, where they collaborate on the classic short Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, scenes from which are integrated into this film.

Lorca’s obsession waxes as he stays behind in Madrid, his literary and dramaturgical career taking off while he stumps for socialist and incipient gay causes, appearing on stage and fighting for freedom of expression. Six years after Dali’s dramatic departure from Spain, he sallies to Paris to visit the Surrealist and his wife, ice queen Gala.

Dali has met with great commercial success, which, like Andy Warhol in the late 20th century, renders him more conservative, capitalistic and apolitical. A resulting chasm opens up between the two artists. Dali has his sights set on world domination, proposing collaboration on an opera in New York, but Lorca splits in a huff, retreating to Spain to stand up for his principles in the face of Franco’s threat.

Beltrán, a dead ringer for the real- life Lorca, gives the strongest showing here in a charismatic, soulful debut which augurs well for the actor’s future career. Tween idol Pattinson comports himself with emo-ish diffidence as the preening, arrogant artist as a young man, though he occasionally resorts to telegraphing Dali’s eccentricity with overuse of the self-consciously quirky gesture. (Then again, such criticism could surely be directed at Dali as much as the actor playing him.)

McNulty strikes a balance between machismo and self-doubt as Buñuel. The entire cast of this English-Spanish production is game, milking their roles for complexity and nuance within a limited framework.

Ultimately the film stands or falls on the chemistry of the two leads, which they’ve got in spades. We feel the pull between the two artists, as the camera dips and swirls in an underwater seduction which evokes the homoerotic photography of Bruce Weber. And it’s to director Paul Morrison’s credit that there are no lapses into lachrymose sentimentality.

The romance could have been all the more compelling given the subject matter. Goslett‘s more ambitious script was whittled down over a period of years until nought but the love story remained. But Morrison pushes the fast forward button far too often, giving the whole affair a rushed feel. Ironically the excised historical content could have given the story more emotional heft. And those looking for insight into the creative genesis of a group of artistic giants should look elsewhere.

Extras are fairly straightforward, including trailer, bios and interviews with director Morrison, screenwriter Goslett and newcomers McNulty and Gatell. Interviews average about 15 minutes. Morrison discusses the lengthy development process, the two actors reflect on their respective characters and Goslett offers up some surprising tidbits on how few of the facts were fudged.

RATING 6 / 10