Daaaaaali! is sublimely nonsensical fun, not at all to be taken seriously, yet with some clever commentary at play too.
At this year’s autumn film festivals, first Venice and now London, biopics of all shapes and sizes showed that this often-predictable genre is capable of taking risks and unleashing surprises. While the likes of Ferrari and Priscilla play things safe, you’ll also find the likes of the hilarious Hit Man or the deeply felt Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus to challenge expectations. Even in its narrative conventionality, Maestro is assembled with great care and professionalism. However, the most singular of the real-life selection from these fests has to be Quentin Dupieux’s delirious Daaaaaali! (Shouting that title out loud is entirely apropos.).
Describing Daaaaaali! as a biopic does both the film and its subject a disservice. No one film could ever claim to capture the essence of such a charmingly multifaceted and flamboyant man as Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Many actors, from Robert Pattinson to Ben Kingsley, have tried to pin down the artist before. The punchline of Daaaaaali! is that there is no single essence to be captured. The fact that Dalí is played by several different actors over the course of the film’s brief runtime underlines this thesis, as does the work of Dupieux, another purveyor of Surrealist quirk. The manufacturer of such bemusements as Rubber and Mandibles is forever challenging his audience with subverted expectations and fast-paced lunacy, never letting you get ahead of the joke.
Dupieux regular Anaïs Demoustier is our guide through the impending lunacy, playing a journalist who seeks to interview Dalí for a magazine. He comes for the interview in a hotel, with a prolonged entrance reminiscent of a similar gag in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. On the surface, the presentation of Dalí is based on what we already know. Whether portrayed by Gilles Lellouche, Jonathan Cohen or Édouard Baer, Dalí barges in and subsumes all around him in elongated vowels and confidence to the nth degree.
The comedy of Daaaaaali! comes from Dupieux creating a surreal world to keep up with this whirlwind of whimsy. When Dalí demands the journalist interview him for the more worthy medium of television, we can’t possibly argue. He has to be given every opportunity to make a show. Given Dupieux’s usual register, anyone expecting to see Dalí coming up with the idea for painting melting clocks is going to be disappointed by Daaaaaali! The most famous Surrealist artist deserves a film that’s as entertainingly confounding as his art, and Dupieux obliges.
Once he finally escapes the hotel corridor, Dalí proceeds to be a thorn in the side of logic and anyone he encounters. The interview plot is less an arc than a device for episodes of increasing hilarity. As an old-school farce with plenty of madcap physical comedy, Daaaaaali! is a laugh riot. Bringing a Rolls Royce onto a beach is never a good idea, but Dalí insists. Every character is beholden to the artist’s whims, and the audience is dragged along for the ride. A plotline involving the repeated attempts of a cardinal (Eric Naggar) to get Dalí to paint an image from his dreams leads to some unexpected belly laughs. Dalí laughs at everyone, from his patrons to the media who would try to define him. Dupieux doesn’t try to define Dalí, but instead follows his lead and asks only for the viewer to laugh along with the artist.
Daaaaaali! is both a fun time and a statement. Dupieux sees in Dalí a kindred spirit; both create art that refuses to be pinned down. The film he’s made might not be based in truth, but we learn more about what drives Dalí and similar artists from Daaaaaali! than we would from another standard biopic. Besides, watching Dalí paint wouldn’t be anywhere near as funny as the nonsense he perpetrates in Dupieux’s vision. What a picture!
Daaaaaali! will be screened at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival on 12-14 October. Read our list of 25 movies to watch at the 2023 London Film Festival!