The best way to approach this deliberately surreal ‘bio’ is as a tongue-in-cheek series of vignettes that impart some bio details of the famous painter, with contrasting archival clips and stills, and newly shot material – stuff filmed at Dali’s castle at his seaside home.
You could, in fact, subtitle this as ‘Dali at Play at Home,’ since Dali in fact gives us a tour of his home, the rooms where he paints, a sketch-in-progress of wife/muse Gala, and a giant clear dome inside wherein which Dali paints giant figures under the hot sun, while youths push and jostle the flexible dome that’s perched on top of a castle rooftop.
Orson Welles provides a very cheeky narration, but Dali himself does a great deal of speaking in his very strange ‘Dalinian’ command of English, and at one points makes it very clear that “Dah-lee iz not cray-zee!”
He sometimes wears a helmet of stitched together geo-patterns, and plays a piano that’s been dropped into the water. At another juncture, Dali and Gala reproduce their collective birth from giant eggs, from which Dali splats blood, squirts milk, and peppers the beach with fish, signifying their birth and connection to the fishing village in which they live.
He also dawns various wigs, meets with the locals, and sometimes leads a small pseudo-Medieval caravan around his estate, while Jean-Claude Pelletier’s mostly modern jazz score tries to keep up with, if not modulate all the visual weirdness.
Directed by Jean-Christophe Averty (Melody), Self-Portrait is basically a glimpse of the artist indulging in his wacky persona for about an hour, and the director makes use of some intriguing transitions, such as freezes, floating superimpositions of Dali’s paintings, and one painting that dissolves to a giant black & white still from which Dali emerges (and gives his cray-zee speech using a bulbous mic).
It seems like a lot of buffoonery, and Averty accentuates Dali’s plastic pronunciation of English words by cutting to and overlaying psychedelic spirals, and flash-cutting to op art freezes when Dali makes a “che’ sound.
The thing is, while one is amused and ultimately walks away with little a marginally better view of the painter, that are moments when his verbal explanations of some visual ideas (such as a Gala painting) make it clear Dali, much like Alejandro Jodorowsky, lives in his own weird world and creates using lines of reason that have their own logic.
Even when the surreal costumes – including a very tall, white dress shirt wafting in the seaside wind – and large-scale objects elevate Dali’s vignettes to outdoor shock theatre, he plays with our expectations like a magician in front of school kids.
The simplest example has Orson Welles babbling on the soundtrack as Dali fumbles, folds, and bends an already crumpled piece of aluminium foil. As our attention is drawn to Dali’s cartoon visage, his long eyebrows and moustache, he stops his fidgeting - and presents to us an aluminium foil mask that’s identical to the face on a bust nearby.
Averty may have wanted to indulge in more visual trickery, but he knew Dali could deliver the goods through some very simple gestures, and while Self-Portrait isn’t wholly edifying, it’s an amusing romp with a painter at the peak of his stature within international pop culture.
Other recommended (and real) documentaries on Dali include Dali / The Definitive Dali (1986), and The Dali Dimension (2004).
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan