At the time of year where every other film is a biopic chasing prestige respectability, we are lucky to have Quentin Dupieux, the prolific, serious-minded, silly filmmaker perfectly positioned to take a sledgehammer to the genre. His second 2023 feature has been described as a “real fake biopic” of Salvador Dalí but is best understood as a return to the heightened analysis of cinematic storytelling à la 2010 breakthrough Rubber––a movie which increasingly looks like the rare weak spot in a filmography equal-parts playful and thoughtful.
And don’t be mistaken: despite casting several of France’s finest character actors as the famed Spaniard, this isn’t an I’m Not There-style tribute to the artist’s spirit attempting an unconventional work in vein like theirs. Dupieux clearly has no interest in those sub-genres of the biopic, either, even if he does have a clear reverence for his subject. Instead his madcap romp manages to blow up all biopic expectations in the most winningly stupid ways imaginable; as with his other recent work, there is a more profound question lingering beneath the broad gags, but it’s never written to feel like a grander thesis statement to distract from the comedy. If anything, the inherent silliness of the film exists to help further the exploration of the biopic genre’s inherent failings, and whether any artist should allow someone else’s voice to spin their story into their own words.
Daaaaaali! bares a closer resemblance to the later works of the artist’s early collaborator, Luis Buñuel, through its central conceit, following a journalist (Dupieux regular Anaïs Demoustier) whose repeated attempts to record an interview with the eccentric artist keep falling through for all manner of bizarre reasons. At first he objects to the idea of being interviewed for a magazine, demanding to be seen on the big screen––when a filmed interview is arranged, he ends up crashing his car into the camera because he wants to park on set (which, it should be noted, is in the middle of a beach). There is very little in the way of distinction between any actors who play Dalí, which is no criticism; the writer-director keeps interchanging them at random, often in the middle of scenes, and they all uniformly hit the same broadly comic personification of the artist. He’s a proud egomaniac who enunciates every syllable and frequently rolls out words longer than necessary, a man whose presence is felt long before he enters the room––something Dupieux lays bare in a delightfully nonsensical opening gag that sees him taking longer to walk down the corridor to his first interview than what is physically possible. Like most things in the director’s world, the simple pleasures of his visual gags don’t neatly translate to the written word, so simply trust that this is among the hardest I’ve laughed at a film this year.
One thing the writer-director particularly excels at is hammering every hacky comedic conceit he can conceive into the ground, somehow achieving the impossible of making laughs consistently land where there should be groans. About a half-hour in, he reveals that some of the surreal events he’s depicted were a Priest explaining his dreams to the artist over dinner, in the hope he’d create a new work inspired by them to auction off as a church fundraiser. It’s very quickly revealed this dream explanation was also part of the dream, and suddenly Dupieux ends up spending most of the runtime repeating this same belabored rug pull, going from hilarious to annoying and then all the way back again by the end. Dalí’s work frequently returned to depictions of dream imagery, and the filmmaker has a great time bringing this to life in ways that should theoretically make your eyes roll; it’s less a tribute to the artist and more a reflection of how a bad biopic would depict the recurring obsessions in his art if played completely straight.
The increased blurring between dreams and the film’s reality is Dupieux’s invitation to not take anything we’re seeing particularly seriously, making its narrative perspective so inscrutable––though still very accessible––that this aids the question of who should be an authorial voice when telling someone else’s story. Within the film, Dalí ends up turning the camera towards the journalist, demanding she be the subject, revealing that the one telling the story doesn’t have much of interest to add to the picture. It’s easy to interpret this as Dupieux asking if any of us, including himself, really have anything insightful to offer when depicting more famous lives onscreen, and what gives any artist the right to think they’re the ones who must tell a story which isn’t theirs. After all, his film doesn’t attempt to get under the skin of Dalí; he’s an outsized caricature no matter which actor is portraying him, with a joke shop mustache the only thing they need to get into the role––a quietly scathing commentary on the use of prosthetics to embody real people. I imagine this was chosen to premiere out of competition at Venice because placing it alongside Bradley Cooper’s deliberately showy take on Leonard Bernstein would only expose how reductive that unnecessary performance aid can be.
But the biggest takeaway from Daaaaaali!, as with all of Dupieux’s recent work, might be that he doesn’t expect us to ponder too much the questions he proposes. He’s a very funny filmmaker––funny-ha-ha, not arthouse funny––and I suspect he doesn’t want to distract more than necessary from his delightfully silly simple pleasures. The festival screening I attended at London’s lovely Curzon Mayfair had a poster for the impending UK release of the more conventional biopic Dalíland plastered outside. I strongly suspect that while that film may have a more incisive approach to its subject, it won’t offer as much food for thought as this, the stupidest film I have loved this year.
Daaaaaali! screened at the BFI London Film Festival.