Last night PJ and I watched Little Ashes, which stars Robert Pattinson and Javier Beltrán as Salvador Dalí and Federico García Lorca, respectively. The movie follows these men’s relationship from the time they meet at university in Madrid to Lorca’s assassination by the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Here’s the trailer:

My response to this movie was rather mixed. On the one hand, I’ll admit up front that I didn’t know much about either Dalí or Lorca before seeing this movie. While my ignorance made the film difficult to follow at times, it also meant that I learned something about these men, which I liked. On the other hand, the movie did little to help someone ignorant like me, which made the film unnecessarily difficult to admire or enjoy. I liked it, but I thought that it could have been a much better film.

Let’s start with the positive. Beltran is especially good in the role of Lorca, and in many ways the film is really about him. He reminds me of a young Antonio Banderas or Javier Bardem. What he brings to the role of Lorca is a great combination of sensitivity and masculinity. I really liked his ability to avoid depicting Lorca’s homosexuality as effeminacy. Too often, gays are simply depicted as mincing would-be women. Beltran’s Lorca is just a poet who happens to like men in general and Dali in particular. He’s very good in this role, and I hope someone like Pedro Almodovar casts him in a big movie soon.

Pattinson is also good as Dali, though his performance suffers from two things. First, he’s now inevitably Robert-Pattinson-the-movie-star rather than just Robert-Pattinson-the -actor. His fame outside of this role tends to overwhelm his performance. In other words, he doesn’t disappear enough into the role for us to forget that we’re watching Robert Pattinson play gay.

Second, his performance suffers as a result of the film’s biggest weakness, the script. It wasn’t until almost the final scene that I realized what the film was trying to say about Dali, that his eccentric (read insane) behavior was really a kind of closeting of his true self, his feelings, and his sexuality. I really like this reading of him, but it really should have been made more of the point of the film earlier. In retrospect, this is what the film is trying to show in the opening scene, in which Dali arrives at the university, but it didn’t follow it up clearly enough, I think, until the end. It’s now clear to me that Pattinson was in on this depiction of Dali and tries to carry it through the whole film, but he just doesn’t have the script to back it up.

My beef against the script is two-fold. First, as I’ve said above, it doesn’t give Pattison enough to work with so that we understand the movie’s take on Dali earlier. Second, and really this is the main criticism I have of the movie, it’s too uninformative at key moments. It felt like the movie was trying to be artistically elliptical, giving us an impressionistic vision of these men’s lives. In that way, it’s trying to be just as artistic as its subjects. But being elliptical is difficult to pull off in a bio-pic. It leaves us with unanswered questions, confuses the audience about the passage of time, and prevents us from getting to know the characters as people. I found it to be an inhibitor to feeling involved in the movie’s plot and love story. Obviously, seeing Lorca’s assassination was affecting, but the climax would have worked better if we cared more about these characters as a group and not just Lorca, who was the only character I felt any sympathy for or understanding of.I blame the script for this.

While reading the wikipedia entry on Little Ashes, I was impressed by the following passage:

In January 1986, Ian Gibson, who was doing research for Lorca’s biography that came out in 1989, was summoned by Dali’s friend Antoni Pixtot, the painter, to meet him in Figueres – “At once I was in Madrid and caught the next plane.” Gibson writes. “Dali, it transpired, desperately wanted to convince me that his great friend Federico Garcia Lorca had loved him sexually, not merely ‘platonically’, and to ensure that I made clear in this second volume of my biography of the poet. Despite his appalling physical condition, his difficulty articulating, and his evident despair, he provided me with some astonishing details about that relationship.”

In an urgent mixture of Catalan and Castilian, the painter tried to impress upon Gibson how deeply he had loved Lorca, how he had felt they were soul-mates. Though the desire between them had been mutual, the attempt at consummation had hurt too much to continue, and so they had decided Lorca would sleep with a female friend of theirs while Dali watched and masturbated from the sidelines — a kind of “consummation by proxy” — and Dali indicated this was the beginning of his voyeurism. Ultimately, things had fallen apart between them because Dali had been simply “too scared,” and so he had run off to Paris, Louis Buñuel, and Gala Dalí.

Gibson adds, “This was no question of mere affection. I came away with the clear impression that Dali’s friendship with the poet was perceived by him as one of the fundamental experiences in his life.”

This was a simple, sad, and very human story he told, and it is precisely this story that is presented in Little Ashes. All the details we know about their relationship come directly from Dalí’s own mouth. (Source)

This story is fascinating, but the movie just barely scratches the surface. The main plot points are all there, but the film doesn’t do more than hit its marks. I admire what it’s trying to do — the acting is good, and some of the shots are breath-taking — but it just doesn’t give us enough of the passion and depth that his brief wikipedia passage points to. We don’t see Dali being tortured by his desire for Lorca nor do we see that his is such a formative relationship in Dali’s life. We just see a quasi-egomaniac who gets nauseous or freaks out whenever Lorca tries to poke him in the butt. And that’s about the level of sophistication that the film achieves in these scenes. One wonders if anyone gay was at all attached to the making of the film.

In criticizing the screenplay, I’m disagreeing with Paul Morrison, the director, who apparently loved it. As he’s quoted as saying:

About what brought Morrison to the Little Ashes picture, he says it was “[a] great screenplay.” Continues Morrison, it’s “an intimate human story of these three or four people’s relationships at an extraordinary moment in history of social and artistic ferment. Plus, it was about these three exceptional artists, at least one of whom was a hero of mine.”

About the screenplay, which was written by Philippa Goslett, Morrison says that “the good thing about [it] is that it doesn’t attempt to be a biopic. It doesn’t try to tell the whole story, it just explores one seminal moment. Really, it’s a love story, and that’s what gives it power.” (Source)

This isn’t the movie I saw, which covers a much longer period in Lorca’s life than “one seminal moment.” Whether he’s intended to or not, Morrison has created a biopic, but he’s right that it doesn’t tell the whole story. And that’s part of the problem.

The story this film tells is complex and interesting. I just wish the film had been equally complex and interesting. It’s a good effort, but it could have been great.

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