The trouble with instant stardom, to star and moviegoer alike, is that all an actor’s creative skeletons come pouring out of the closet; suddenly, the Darwinian nature of the movie business goes awry and projects destined for straight-to-DVD purgatory (at best) find their way into theaters. Just ask poor Ellen Page, who seemed to headline a middling Canadian arthouse movie every other month after Juno’s runaway success. Now Robert Pattinson, the dark-eyed-yet-sensitive teen pin-up sensation from Twilight, has surfaced in Little Ashes as no less a figure than the great surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. His performance gets crazier as Dalí’s mustache does likewise. It’s an embarrassing example of an actor who has committed himself wholly to a part he was never suited to play, and the film’s florid, soap opera conception of biography does him no favors.
Opening against the repressive backdrop of Madrid, Spain in the ’20s, when a country run by an iron-fisted conservative government ran up against the unruliness of the Jazz Age and the avant-garde, Little Ashes depicts the relationship between three great artists-in-training: The dramatist and poet Federico García Lorca (Javier Beltran), Dalí, and filmmaker Luis Buñuel (Matthew McNulty). The 18-year-old Dalí’s arrival at their university raises eyebrows, both for his unusual manner and dress and his outsized artistic ambitions, and García Lorca and Buñuel adopt him into their inner circle. Over time, García Lorca develops an attraction to Dalí that’s forbidden by law, but the two men eventually share intimacies that quickly curdle into betrayal.
Director Paul Morrison and his screenwriter Philippa Goslett take generous liberties with the historical record. Though rumors have swirled regarding García Lorca and Dalí’s relationship, Dalí insisted in typically frank, wry terms that he rebuffed his friend’s advances: “Nothing came of it, but I felt awfully flattered vis-à-vis the prestige. Deep down I felt he was a great poet and that I owe him a tiny bit of the Divine Dalí’s asshole.” It’s too bad that Dalí’s irreverence is so overwhelmed in Little Ashes by his cold self-absorption, and too bad also that Buñuel goes AWOL for most of the movie. But the film’s biggest problem, beyond the overheated melodrama and paper-thin period trappings, is that the trio’s fictionalized dalliances diminish their real art.