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Art on the big screen: When Dalí and Lorca were lovers—perhaps

"Little Ashes" tells one side of a very contentious story

Paul Morrison’s film “Little Ashes” focuses on the ménage a quatre between Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, poet and playwright Federico García Lorca and the actress Margarita Xirgu in Spain in the 1920s and 1930s.

Buñuel and Lorca, with Lorca’s friend and muse Xirgu, were the leaders of a fashionable set who held court at the city’s bars and restaurants, loudly declaiming provocative witticisms and dancing the latest dances, in the manner of the young and supremely confident who believe the future to be exclusively theirs (pace Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies). Lorca, indeed, had much to feel confident about, as an already published and acclaimed poet. When the younger Dalí arrives at the residences, his brooding affectations lead quickly to his adoption by the older group.

The director, Morrison, and screenwriter Philippa Goslett, use creative licence to fill in the gaps in the known facts about the protagonists’ lives. Apart from changing Xirgu’s name from Margarita to Magdalena, allowing for a degree of flexibility in the portrayal of her relationship with Lorca, the film’s most contentious assertion concerns the depiction of a physical sexual relationship between Dalí and Lorca. Morrison and Goslett, while carefully avoiding any gratuitous “money shot”, suggest about as strongly as they can that the two young men sexualised their relationship during a summer retreat at the seaside resort of Cadaqués.

However, according to acknowledged Lorca expert and biographer Ian Gibson (who has also written acclaimed biographies of Dalí and Buñuel), it has never been established that Lorca’s infatuation with Dalí was ever consummated.

“Dalí summoned me in 1968 to tell me about it,” Gibson told the British newspaper, the Independent, “when he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and his head [was] all cluttered up with tubes. He confirmed that Lorca was passionately attracted to him and wanted to make love to him physically, but Dalí was too frightened to give himself.”

And while there is no questioning the fact that Dalí was capable of presenting fictionalised accounts of just about every aspect of his own life as and when he saw fit, as Lorca was murdered by Franco’s thugs at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the painter’s is the only account there is. Anything else is speculation, so this highly watchable film is more about the melodrama of the principal characters’ relationships, and less useful as a historical document (though perhaps not as arcane as composer Osvaldo Golijov’s 2003 opera “Ainadamar” which ignored Dalí completely and turned Lorca into a woman.)

As Dalí, young British actor Robert Pattinson is a compelling grotesque, a monster of neurotic self-regard and casual betrayal. Given the amount that we do know about the painter, his performance is the least contentious.

o “Little Ashes” is released in cinemas in Britain and the US on 8 May