If not for the success of kiddie vampire flick Twilight you would likely NOT be reading this review for a movie about the unrequited love affair between poet Federico García Lorca (Javier Beltran) and superstar surrealist Salvador Dalí (Robert Pattinson). Little Ashes was shot long before star Robert Pattison became the Twilight heart throb du jour and his presence saved this movie from languishing on a shelf or becoming a budget art house DVD release. Just as Madonna’s popularity created a thirst for her pre-fame film A Certain Sacrifice, Pattison’s popularity ensures that this unremarkable film will find an audience.
When the story begins it is 1922. Dalí, Lorca and future filmmaker Luis Buñuel (Matthew McNulty) are schoolmates at an art school in Madrid. They are an intense bunch; artists who are looking to find the passion that will inform their later and greater work.
Dalí is already a young fop, dressed head to toe in ruffles topped with a Theda Bara hair do. At age 18 he is confronting the conventions of the day and given to pronouncements like, “I am the savior of modern art.” Lorca and Buñuel are less flamboyant, but just as driven. Over time an attraction develops between Dalí and Lorca but their mutual feelings are made difficult by a fascist law that forbids homosexuality, the disapproval of Buñuel and Dalí’s growing ambition to conquer the art world.
As young, idealistic artists the three school mates adopt an artistic manifesto of “no limits” as their code for pushing the edges of creative expression and life experience but for a movie about exploring new ideas Little Ashes is remarkably limited. The set-up is standard biopic. Characters meet, fall in love, there’s some conflict and bang, credits roll. It’s all very straightforward despite the character’s lip service to surrealism, Dada and anarchy. The real Dalí would roll over in his grave to be portrayed in such a standard film.
Pattison, at least, brings a certain strangeness to his portrayal of Dalí. It is, however, an unforgiving part to play. He throws himself into the role, but because Dalí was a flamboyant peacock whose eccentricities manifested themselves in physical affectations Pattison ends up playing the surface Dalí, popping his eyes and speaking strangely. His mimicry resembles a pretentious youngster not a true iconoclast.
Dalí is one of the most important and outrageous figures of recent art history and yet here he looks silly when he should be imposing. Pattison simply isn’t a seasoned enough actor to really breathe life into a character based on a larger than life man. Dalí once said “every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí” but Pattison isn’t able to convey that “supreme pleasure.”
Little Ashes is an admirable effort but is sunk by an overly long running time, some awkward performances and bland direction. There is an interesting story to be told about Dalí and the “construction of his genius” but this isn’t it.