In 1933, while visiting Buenos Aires, the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca gave a lecture on the aesthetic properties of duende, a force that can be located in certain works of art or folkloric traditions, such as flamenco, yet resists clean, orderly explanation. It has something to do with the abyss, with a deeper sadness that speaks from experience, with a strangeness that shakes loose unexamined fragments from the firmament of the unconscious, with an inescapable connection to one’s roots, with a sensuality never entirely distanced from the diabolical, with earthiness and desire and death. (Trying to define duende can be a bit like trying to define film noir; sometimes it’s simply whatever makes something otherwise routine, such as a crime drama, or a poem mediating on loss, into something rich, chilling, and mysterious in ways that extend far beyond the solving of a mystery.) Little Ashes is a movie about García Lorca as his formative youthful encounters with filmmaker Luis Buñuel and painter Salvador Dalí, and, let me tell you, does it ever not have even a drop of duende.
Though made, perhaps, with commendable intentions, Little Ashes, written by Philippa Goslett and directed by Paul Morrison (Solomon and Gaenor), effectively takes three of the 20th century’s more incendiary artists and tames their shared youthful reveries into something grotesquely bland and safe, an assembly of biographical conjecture in which the term “outrageous” is most firmly kept within quotation marks, and annoying affection, rather than artistic revelation, is celebrated. It’s like the worst thing Christopher Hampton never wrote. More earnest and awkwardly acted even than the Hampton-scripted Arthur Rimbaud-Paul Verlaine movie Total Eclipse. It goes to show that there’s nothing, not surrealism nor sadism, not dada nor death metal, that cannot be appropriated and converted into stuffy museum pieces, sordid soap opera, or soul-deadening muzak. My recoil exacerbated by the fact that at least one of the three figures in Little Ashes is among the artists whose work I treasure more than any other, I’m fighting the temptation to call the movie an abomination, because that word just sounds a little too exciting to be applied to what’s found here.
It starts in 1922, when the soon-to-be dark luminaries García Lorca (Javier Beltrán), Buñuel (Matthew McNulty) and Dalí (Robert Pattinson) converge at university in Madrid. Much ostensibly iconoclastic wankerspeak about revising the values of art is tossed about in mealy-mouthed Castellano accents, since, unfortunately, the proceedings are largely to be spoken in English by one Spaniard and two Brits. Dalí upsets the status quo with his foppish ruffled shirts, giddy non sequiturs (“I would love an enema!”), and advanced talents, arousing the admiration of Buñuel and the erotic desire of García Lorca, whose quiet homosexual longings find an eager receptacle in Dalí’s sexual ambivalence and overriding urge to be adored.
The development of artistic vision in Little Ashes is largely reduced to shallow manifesto spouting. To be fair, the story’s emphasis is meant to be on the peculiar and fragile dynamic of the relationships, yet here too, despite a valiant and genuinely sexy supporting turn from Marina Gatell as the sole woman to intrude on this very male milieu, we’re asked to be satisfied with boilerplate conflicts that depend on our acceptance that Lorca was a sensitive saint cursed by an oppressive culture, Buñuel a belligerent homophobic thug with, most astonishingly, no sense of humour, and Dalí a poncy, profoundly pretentious idiot. Now, I’m not trying to suggest that Dalí wasn’t, too a depressingly large extent, a poncy, profoundly pretentious idiot, since there’s an awful lot of evidence to support this characterization. But it is the most essential business of biopics to transcend the superficial depiction of their subjects, because otherwise what’s the point? I doubt that Little Ashes would have ever got any sort of theatrical release at all were it not for Twilight star Pattinson’s sudden stardom, but it surely won’t do his career any favours to be found hamming it up wincingly, playing a public figure all too large for life to begin with. Of the central trio only Beltrán can muster up any emotional integrity from the material, so Lorca, at least, might not be rolling in his grave.