Back in 1995, Leonardo DiCaprio, then an up-and-coming young actor, decided to demonstrate his versatility by starring in Agnieszka Holland’s arty biographical movie about nineteenth-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, “Total Eclipse.” The picture, which focused on Rimbaud’s intimate relationship with fellow versifier Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis), was an unmitigated disaster. Some fourteen years later, another heartthrob in the ascendant, Robert Pattinson of the “Twilight” franchise, goes a similar route playing flamboyant Spanish artist Salvador Dali in Paul Morrison’s “Little Ashes,” in which the emphasis is on the young painter’s relationship—a highly speculative one based on a few remarks by Dali late in life—with short-lived poet/dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca (Javier Beltran), who was executed early in the Spanish Civil War by Franco’s forces. The result isn’t quite as bad as “Eclipse,” by it comes perilously close.
DiCaprio never seemed comfortable as Rimbaud, and Pattinson is even less so as Dali, who’s introduced in 1922 as the eighteen-year old arrives at the Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid. Foppishly dressed and extremely shy, he immediately catches the eye of the older Lorca, already an established writer, and becomes a member of his circle, which also includes avant-garde filmmaker Luis Bunuel (Matthew McNulty), here presented as a rabid homophobe who fumes as his two friends haltingly move into a forbidden sexual territory. There’s a complication, moreover, in the person of Magdalena (Marina Gatell), a writer who’s also enamoured of Lorca.
Up to this point, “Little Ashes” has the feel of one of those stilted coming-of-age stories so common to gay films, complete with sideways glances, sunlit bike rides and gambols on the beach. True, it’s made somewhat distinctive by reason of the period setting, which emphasizes the repressive societal norms of ultra-conservative Spain, and by the Iberian locations, which lend a sense of authenticity to the low-budget film, even if some of the interiors are terribly cramped. But though Beltran makes a convincingly smoldering Lorca, Pattinson remains stiff and unpersuasive as young Dali, and the exercise has the feel of a poor cousin to films like the Merchant-Ivory “Maurice.”
Moreover, the focus shifts abruptly at about the halfway point as Dali decamps to France to work with Bunuel and becomes a self-aggrandizing darling of the surrealist movement (though it later expelled him). Suddenly we’re in the mid-thirties, the Civil War breaks out, Lorca’s emerged as a champion of the socialist Republic, and Dali, with statuesque wife Gala (Arly Jover) in tow and his signature upturned moustache now in place, returns to ask Lorca to be his collaborator in an effort to seek fame and fortune in America. In this second section the picture veers completely out of control. Goslett and Morrison never manage to clarify the political context, despite the use of stock footage and poor recreations, and Bunuel’s reemergence—as an instrument to describe the change in Dali (a transformation portrayed in a truly awful montage of his extravagant life in Paris, complete with can-can dancers)—is a deus ex machina that seems more mechanical than divine.
What really sinks this last section of the picture, though, is Pattinson’s thoroughly laughable attempt to play the older, absurdly flamboyant painter. Looking for all the world like a child doing a bit of dress-up, he prances around without ever persuading us that he’s anything but an uncomfortable actor trying to hide behind a stage moustache and a striped suit that seems too large for him. His final scene with Beltran and Jover is an embarrassment, and even the sequence depicting Lorca’s execution that shortly follows it can’t salvage the wreckage it leaves in its wake.
It’s always nice to see a gay film that attempts something different from the usual run of boy-meets-boy in high school stories. But “Little Ashes” basically tells the same familiar yarn in a different setting, and unsuccessfully tries to give it wider interest by using a couple of famous figures as its protagonists. The highly speculative nature of the narrative will trouble some, but the real problem with the picture is that as a result of serious shortcomings in execution—particularly Pattinson’s performance—it suffers from a lack of believability and real passion. Aptly-titled, “Little Ashes” is a dry, dull retelling of a typical gay coming-of-age tale that’s invigorated by neither the period backdrop nor the fact that the characters were real people.