Why can’t people just leave artists’ lives shrouded in mystery? While the curious intersection of great talents like Salvador Dali and Federico García Lorca will always be a heated topic of discussion, films like Little Ashes bring to their lives too much mythos and not much intrigue.
The film follows the time when Dali, Lorca and filmmaker compatriot Luis Buñuel were all university chums in the 1920s and, as rumour has it, Dali and Lorca got more than just their artistic groove on. Little Ashes takes this homo incident and runs full steam ahead, showing Lorca (Javier Beltrán) and Dali (Robert Pattinson) sharing sidelong looks, tender moments and an eventual consummation (of sorts).
Unfortunately, Little Ashes goes where most other biopics do: retracing landmark plot points in the characters’ lives and not going deep enough into their mindscapes.
What we get are the main events of each man’s life manifested into a dry recapitulation: Lorca’s rise to poetry fame, his leftwing theatre performances and his return to Andalusia, along with Dali’s early experiments in surrealism, his university expulsion and eventual success. All this gets exemplified in such unimaginative lines like Buñuel’s “I’m leaving for Paris tomorrow” or Dali’s “I grew this moustache.” The whole thing reads like a summary from a Wikipedia page.
The parts where director Paul Morrisson (Solomon and Gaenor) takes liberty with the men’s biographies is hackneyed and gives little insight into their private worlds. If there did exist this secret sexual affair between Lorca, who was openly gay, and Dali, whose sexuality was problematic, I highly doubt it involved moonlight swims set to Spanish guitar music played out in slow motion.
It is through this actualization of their lives that the whole homo debate loses clout. Case in point: Buñuel’s reported homophobia. In the film Buñuel (Matthew McNulty) makes a couple “queer” comments and then goes cruising for sex only to gaybash his male suitor. Painting Buñuel as a closeted homophobe comes off as just too pat for the three men’s relationship.
The performances are uninspired. Whereas Dali was renowned for his polarizing flamboyance and shyness, Little Ashes depicts him as merely a shy genius in university who later evolves into a histrionic twit when he becomes a big art star.
The primary use of English also falls flat. With a mixed cast of Spaniards and Brits, all dialogue is in English and the only Spanish in the film is the reciting of Lorca’s poems — which are then dubbed over again in English for our un-enjoyment.
The film also serves up a stunningly misogynistic dynamic with Lorca’s female companion Magdelene (Marina Gatell). While it does denote her struggles as a female writer, the men physically and literally use her as a means to express their homo desire.
Good biopics (I Shot Andy Warhol, The Queen) should always leave us wanting for more. Little Ashes leaves you wanting less. Much less.
Little Ashes opens in Toronto on Fri, May 22, at the Cumberland Cinemas, 159 Cumberland Ave.