Little Ashes

Regency Entertainment,

Paul Morrison

Philippa Goslett

Javier Beltran,
Robert Pattinson,
Matthew McNulty,
Marina Gatell,
Bruno Oro,
Arly Jover

Rated R, 112 minutes

Portraits Of The Artists As Young Men
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, February 2010

The friendships that form between fellow artists have always held a certain fascination, especially when the bond also enters the realm of the sexual. The interpersonal relationships between the Beat writers of the 1950s were just as interesting as their published books; likewise for the artists and authors of the Harlem Renaissance. Three of Spain's most celebrated 20th century artists attended university together during the 1920s. Little Ashes, a 2009 film by Paul Morrison, explores the passionate fellowship - that may or may not have also been sexual - between the famed poet/playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) and the painter Salvador Dali (1904-1989).

The prevailing atmosphere in Spain was conservative and Catholic. In another ten years, the country would be plunged into civil war and it was the perfect time to be a revolutionary artist. Not to mention a Surrealist. Little Ashes opens in 1922 at The Residencia de Estudiantes, a prominent school for the arts in Madrid. It is there that Federico Lorca (Javier Beltram) and his friend, Luis Bunuel (Matthew McNulty), witness the flamboyant arrival of Salvador Dali (Twilight's Robert Pattinson). Before we go further, let me first introduce the three prominent historical figures in Little Ashes.

Lorca, a legend in Spain, is revered as both a poet and as a dramatist. His plays, steeped in Andalusian folklore, include Blood Wedding (1932) and The House of Bernarda Alba (1936). When the Spanish Civil War exploded in 1936, Lorca was arrested by members of General Francisco Franco's Nationalist Party because of his politics (many historians claim that his homosexuality had something to do with it as well). A few days later, he was assassinated. His works were banned until the 1950s.

Dali is perhaps the most famous painter from the Surrealist art movement. His painting of melting clocks, The Persistence Of Memory (1931), is as recognized today as his signature moustache. Dali's ego was legendary, as was his penchant for fame and, especially, wealth. He would even embrace fascism if he knew he could make a buck. One of the all-time publicity whores, Dali never missed an opportunity to court attention until he became a parody of the great artist he once was.
Lorca and Dali would greatly influence each other's art between 1925 and 1928. The third artist to feature prominently in Little Ashes is the great filmmaker Luis Bunuel (1900-1983). Bunuel and Dali made the notorious Surrealist short film, Un Chien Andalu, together in 1929. Bunuel eventually left Europe to make films in Mexico, and is renowned in cinema circles for The Exterminating Angel (1962), Belle de Jour (1967) and The Discrete Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972). Little Ashes is a portrait of these artists as young men.
Dali's first entrance foreshadows his later flair for absurd showmanship. He arrives at the university with long hair and dressed like Little Lord Faunteroy. He might as well be in drag but, because he appears to be making a deliberately shocking "statement," the avante-garde loving students welcome him with open arms. He is already at pains to create a new persona and he makes sure that one of the other students takes notice of the "strategically placed copy of Freud" laying open on the bed. Later, he experiments with his "look" in front of a mirror, finally standing there naked and feyly posing with a cigarette. He cuts his hair, slicks it back and wears a suit - and looks even more androgynous than before.
Frankly, Robert Pattinson looks ridiculous as Dali, especially when he finally sports the long, thin, silent film villain moustache. But Dali himself looked ridiculous and so Pattinson looks exactly as he should. I give Pattinson credit for taking this role. It was made before he hit mega teen heartthrob stardom in the Twilight movies but, even so, it was a gutsy acting challenge. Leonardo DiCaprio did something similar in 1995 when he played Rimbaud to David Thewlis' Verlaine in Total Eclipse.
Although Leslie Stainton's biography of Lorca reports that Bunuel was disgusted by the possibility that his two friends might be lovers, the film might be exaggerating the extent of the homophobia he displays. He walks into Lorca's room and almost catches the two men kissing - and wonders why they are both wearing turbans. Later, his eyes dart around the room to the Dali canvas hanging over Lorca's bed and the framed photo of the artists on the beach, and he doesn't look happy. We can only hope that when Bunuel goes out and cruises a gay man, and then beats him up, that it is perhaps a little too much liberty on the part of the filmmakers.
Yet the film positions Bunuel in such a way that he precipitates the break between Lorca and Dali and this is effective from a dramatic standpoint. Bunuel almost seems jealous that Dali designed the sets for Lorca's play while Lorca neglects the film script that he had asked him to write. Lorca doesn't want to leave Spain, while Bunuel tempts Dali with stories of Paris. Dali's mind is made up when Lorca attempts to have sex with him and he coldly announces that he is going to Paris to write a film with Bunuel. Dali has also courted scandal by living openly with Gala, a married woman who would become his lifelong muse. Leaving Lorca heartbroken, Dali and Bunuel make Un Chien Andalu in Paris. A brief montage of clips from the silent film follows, including the famous eyeball slicing scene. The film's title translates as An Andalusion Dog and Lorca perceives it as a personal attack. "Who else do they know," Lorca asks, "who comes from Andalu?"
Their love story is, in every way, a romantic tale from the initial courtship through the betrayal. Perhaps if they met today they would have consummated their love but Dali's penchant for iconoclasm, and his credo of "no limits," could not extend towards same sex physical love. Even Lorca wrestles with his desires and tries to at least project an image of conventional heterosexuality. But his heart belonged to Dali, as evidenced by his Ode To Dali and the passionate letters they wrote to each other. Dali longs for Lorca as well; he shyly responds to the poet's kisses and even initiates one himself before succumbing to the era's gay panic.
There is no way of knowing for sure if Lorca and Dali actually consummated their relationship but both men deeply loved each other - even if only on an artistic plane. Little Ashes shares Munch's The Hours And Times' conceit concerning John Lennon and Brian Epstein; a fanciful but plausible fantasy. Passion shared between like-minded artists is stronger than a physical attraction and so the filmmakers are to be commended for treating their camaraderie as a love story. Little Ashes is quite romantic in spots, and also very erotic, but the pervading intellectualism (demanded by the film's subjects) prevents the tale from ever truly catching the fire that it should.
Little Ashes is a very handsome production and great pains have been taken to reproduce the period. The filmmakers have nailed most of the historical details; the appropriate canvasses by Dali, for example, are spotlighted - the correct one even hangs over Lorca's bed. Archival photographs are re-created. Newsreel footage is employed. When Franco's soldiers execute Lorca, one notes that he is still alive and declares that "there is only one to kill a fag." The last gunshot occurs off camera but those familiar with the legends surrounding the poet's death will be reminded of the rumors that Lorca received a final bullet up his rectum.
Movies about the friendships - and rivalries - between artists are hard to pull off. Amadeus did it admirably while Total Eclipse, despite the talent involved, was a complete train wreck. Little Ashes doesn't quite achieve greatness but it is far from being a train wreck. Those unfamiliar with the players might find the film hard to understand but Little Ashes has many pleasures for those who are willing to take the plunge.
Despite the presence of Pattinson, Little Ashes did not find a mass audience. I suppose it is too much to hope that the legions of teen-aged girls (and horny gay adolescent boys) who flock to the Twilight movies might check out this film and learn a little bit about art and literature. It's worth noting that Beltran (Lorca) is also a heartthrob in Spain, and that the two of them do light up the screen from time to time. Even if Little Ashes isn't quite the masterful historical fantasia that Amadeus was, there is much to admire in Little Ashes and it comes recommended. Despite flaws, it is a well directed film, exquisitely shot, and nicely acted. As a bonus, we get a heallthy dose of Lorca's poetry and Dali's art. It's anything but a dry history lesson.