Little Ashes purports to be a film about artists, rather than art, and specifically the promising initial meeting of painter Salvador Dalí (Robert Pattinson), poet Federico Garcia Lorca (Javier Beltran), and filmmaker Luis Buñuel at university in Madrid. The year is 1922. Buñuel blusters, Dalí twitches, and Lorca pouts. As their avant-garde circle drinks and makes merry, Dalí and Lorca are drawn together by the horizontal type of creative energy, but only manage to consummate their infatuation indirectly, with the help of a little voyeurism and a bouncy classmate journalist named Magdalena (Marina Gatell). Did Dalí and Lorca really fall in love? According to screenwriter Philippa Goslett’s “extensive research,” it’s highly possible, if only because the notoriously unreliable Dalí made one or two comments implying that no such affair ever took place. But why let the facts get in the way of a good cliché? Little Ashes strives for controversy -- and achieves it in perhaps the dullest manner possible.
Not a single performance in the film is believable, least of all Twilight vampire Pattinson’s portrayal of Dalí. None of the actors seem to be particularly familiar with actual creative processes other than their own, let alone the work of the artists they portray. And that work, which is presumably the reason why we bother to glorify these men in the first place, is barely present. Instead, there are interminable, high-school cafeteria conversations about art and society, about shocking one’s parents with a haircut, and fooling know-nothing oldsters who have the temerity to praise one’s work. You’d never know these guys actually kick-started Surrealism; their rhetoric is so empty. Yes, a lot of what they had to say about shocking the bourgeoisie was new at the time, but none of those revolutionary ideas are expressed with the crackling energy, fervor, or visceral disturbance that drove audiences to riot after viewing Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou. No film about artists can hope to say anything worthwhile about their lives when the art and ideas driving them are treated so hollowly.
The only saving grace of Little Ashes is how good it looks. Each carefully constructed tableau of on-location Spanish scenery pops with lush color and generous light, a notable feat, considering the film was shot on HD video instead of film. And, of course, there are those pretty young men carrying on with each other in the lead roles. Presumably that’s why this film is seeing the light of day, post-Twilight. It’s easy on the eyes... and even easier on the brain.