Quentin Dupieux rose to something resembling international prominence by directing a movie about a murderous tire named Robert and spent the next decade mocking everything from giant flies to superhero franchises with his distinct brand of surreal filmmaking. The French director seemingly lives to turn goofy premises into clever works of postmodernism that often have more in common with tongue-in-cheek pieces at contemporary art museums than Hollywood films. His love-it-or-hate-it aesthetic is so consistently strange that it’s laughable to suggest any film in his oeuvre was inevitable. But “Daaaaaali!” sure seems like the one movie that Dupieux was destined to make.
Dupieux’s exasperatingly titled “real fake biopic” about Salvador Dalí is a dreamlike tribute to the 20th century’s two most prominent surrealists: Dalí and Luis Buñuel. Ostensibly a story about a young journalist (Anaïs Demoustier) trying to interview the eccentric painter, the film takes its dramatic structure from Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” in which a group of hungry dinner party guests are unable to sit down and eat thanks to an endless stream of surreal diversions. Much like Buñuel’s dinner, the interview with Dalí never actually takes place — hardly a spoiler, as the film’s obvious Buñuel fetishism makes it clear from the opening frames that it’s the only possible ending.
When we meet Salvador Dalí (played by multiple actors throughout the film), he’s walking down an endless hallway of what he’s quick to declare is the most poorly designed hotel he has ever encountered. When he finally makes his way through the horizontal abyss and sits down for his 15-minute interview, he storms out after learning the unnamed print publication didn’t bring any film equipment. As he sees it, interviewing Dalí without a camera is a pointless exercise.
Dupieux’s take on Dalí (who only refers to himself in the third person) spends the entire film obsessing over the presence of cameras and his insistence that they document his carefully curated persona. He agrees to another interview when he’s promised that he’ll be filmed by one of the “big, cumbersome film cameras” used by elite directors — only to storm out when he breaks the camera. The documentary producers woo him back for a third bite at the apple by promising an even bigger set with two cumbersome cameras — an offer he accepts before immediately finding another bullshit excuse to quit.
Beyond the occasional spouted platitude about his unimpeachable greatness, Dalí never discusses his approach to art. His main focus is extending the cult of personality surrounding the great “Daaaaaali” and documenting his myriad quirks for posterity. His voice may well be a stand-in for Dupieux’s, as the French auteur seems considerably more interested in riffing on Dalí’s larger-than-life persona than saying anything substantive about his actual work. So much of surrealism revolves around probing the unconscious mind to find new images, and the film’s utter distaste for facts appears to be an acknowledgment that the iconography of Salvador Dalí now exists in our collective minds in a way that has little to do with the actual man.
The film constantly bends the rules of reality, weaving in and out of dreams within dreams and movies within movies to disorient us until we’re unable to question Dalí’s incoherent proclamations. At one point, Dalí finds himself at his gardener’s dinner party being forced to listen to a priest’s endless story about his meandering dream. On multiple occasions, the priest woke up from his dream to find himself at the dinner party regaling Dalí with the story of his dream — only to realize that he’s still inside of a much larger dream that’s nowhere near concluding. After the third dream blends into the second fictional movie, the raving madman with the waxed mustache begins to seem like the only sane person in the room.
No, “Daaaaaali!” does not contain any information of actual value about the painter’s life — but it would have been unreasonable to expect any from the “Smoking Causes Coughing” director. As one of the 21st century’s most prominent surrealists (faint praise indeed, given his niche status), Dupieux was the perfect man to lead audiences on a victory lap through 20th-century surrealism’s greatest hits. Watching such a subversive artist retread such well-worn beats from Buñuel is like watching Derek Trucks shred his way through a simple 12-bar blues scale: You know you’re not seeing the full extent of his talents, but it’s still a refreshing reminder that he knows his fundamentals.
“Daaaaaali” premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.