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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (13/10/2023)

(Reviews of Cassius X: Becoming Ali; Smoke Sauna Sisterhood; and Daliland)


There have been a number of documentaries about Muhammad Ali since Jimmy Jacobs's A.k.a. Cassius Clay (1970) got the ball rolling. The pick of the bunch has to be Leon Gast's When We Were Kings (1996), which won an Academy Award. But there's always room for one more profile of `The Louisville Lip', hence the release of Marcus A. Clarke's Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali (2001), John Dower's Thrilla in Manila (2008), Pete McCormack's Facing Ali (2009). Ross Whitaker's When Ali Came to Ireland (2012), Bill Siegel's The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013), Clare Lewins's I Am Ali (2014), and Antoine Fuqua's What's My Name: Muhammad Ali (2019).

One might have thought that the last word had been said in Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon's seven-hour epic, Muhammad Ali (2021). But New York director Muta'Ali Muhammad and co-writer Mick McAvoy beg to differ in adapting Stuart Cosgrove's Cassius X: Becoming Ali from the latter's 2020 tome, Cassius X: A Legend in the Making.

In 1959, Cassius Marcellus Clay VI was an up-and-coming light heavyweight boxer. He won the Golden Gloves title in Chicago after a victory over Australian Tony Madigan that Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times claims put the 17 year-old on a national stage. However, biographer Thomas Hauser also notes that he heard about the Nation of Islam for the first time and academics James Small and Mark Anthony Neal put the movement into context of a country in which the white establishment was trying to control the Black narrative.

Madigan and Pole Zbigniew Pietrzykowski were conquered as Clay took gold at the 1960 Olympics in Rome and boxing commentator Jim Lampley and sportswriter Jerry Izenberg admit to being instantly smitten. As mayor of the Olympic Village, he had a platform to demonstrate his confidence and charisma. But he had no knowledge, as he took pride in interviews at being named after his Kentucky ancestors, that Clay was a slave name.

Louisville mayor Greg Fischer explains how 11 white bigwigs bankrolled Clay as he turned professional in order to protect him from the mob sharks who ran the boxing industry. However, Hauser points out that they also treated him as a money-making investment (rather like a horse entered for the Kentucky Derby) and thought nothing of the segregationist policies that prevented them from taking him to dinner in a local restaurant. One of the syndicate, W.L. Lyons Brown, casually mentions in an interview that his maternal great-grandparents probably owned Clay's family.

Claude Clegg, the author of The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad, notes that Clay was a contemporary of Emmett Till and the first students to integrate in Little Rock, Arkansas. He presumes he would have been raised to understand racial etiquette and the dangers of his status in Southern society. Thus, he would have been aware of the risks he took in heading to the Fifth Street Gym belonging to trainer Angelo Dundee in Miami, Florida.

This was also one of his biggest breaks, as Dundee was a shrewd psychologist, who appreciated that Clay needed to retain his cocky persona and used it to mould his ringcraft. He also chose opponents who could teach Clay lessons without really challenging him and Lipsyte commends the strategy of setting up `tomato cans' for Clay to knock down. A clip shows the young Clay humblebragging about fight magazines comparing him to Joe Louis and ranking him above World Champion Floyd Patterson. In January 1962, however, he had his block knocked off by Sonny Liston in becoming the first champ to lose his belt in the first round. Damion Thomas, from the National Museum of African American History & Culture, states that this bout made Liston the most feared man in boxing.

Around this time, a number of groups emerged to campaign for Civil Rights, among them the National Association For the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, and Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. However, it was Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam that most impressed Clay after he heard him speak on the radio in his hotel room. Accepting that white America was never going to accept total equality, he bought into the separatist message and it's intriguing to contrast the way Clegg and Hauser approach Clay's thinking around the time he met Abdul Rahman (aka Samuel Saxon or Captain Sam) in 1962.

Small explains how 30% of the slaves taken from Africa were Muslims and had their identity taken away by the imposition of slave names. Elijah Muhammad granted new names within the Nation of Islam and Rahman invited Clay and his brother Rudolph to see him speak in Detroit. Here they met Malcolm X and daughter Attallah Shabazz avers that they made an immediate impression upon one another.

Clay opted not to speak about his affiliation while climbing the ladder. In 1963, he fought Doug Jones at Madison Square Garden and vowed that he would fall in six rounds as part of a publicity blitz to sell the fight during a newspaper strike. He appeared at one event with tape over his mouth, but still used four fingers during the weigh-in to change his prediction. In fact, the fight proved tougher than he had anticipated and he won a 5-4 decision. Asked afterwards about his hostile reception, Clay said, `Do whatever you want. Boo, scream, throw peanuts. But whatever you do, pay to get in.'

Seventeen years older than Clay, Malcolm X became his mentor. However, White America perceived the Nation of Islam as a threat and their activities were monitored by the FBI. During a raid on a mosque in Los Angeles, Ronald Stokes was killed and Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad fell out over how to respond.

Meanwhile, Clay was making headlines as much for his quips as his victories. The press revelled in his remarks about his beauty and prowess, but they also sought to trip him up in reporting stories such as his romance with singer Dee Dee Sharp, whose grandfather was a pastor. Initially, she had no idea who Clay was. But, despite being obsessed with him, she couldn't shake her Christian upbringing.

Back in the ring, Clay took on Henry Cooper in London in June 1963. Entering the ring at Wembley Stadium wearing a crown, he was convinced he'd win easily. But Henry's Hammer sat him down for the first time in his career two seconds before the end of the fourth round. Hauser dismisses claims that Dundee used a split glove to buy his fighter extra time to recover, as there was only a delay of six seconds before Clay returned to open up the cut over Cooper's eye and get the bout stopped.

This stumble put doubts in some minds that Clay could defeat Liston, who had just made short work of Patterson for a second time in Las Vegas. But Clay seized the moment by jumping into the ring and stealing Liston's thunder. But it also made the champion so mad that he wanted to teach the upstart a lesson.

Sparks were also flying between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad after the former described the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963 as merely being `chickens coming home to roost'. Silenced by the Nation of Islam for his disobedience, Malcolm was ready to strike out on his own and he sought to make his move around the time that Clay took on Liston for the world title in Miami in 1964.

Lypsyte opines that box-office demands made the fight inevitable, even though Clay hadn't paid his dues. But Clay taunted his way into Liston's consciousness, even sitting on his lawn to bug him when not dismissing him as a `big ugly bear'. The media bought into the notion that an erudite pretty boy was going to do battle with a hulking brute (even though Liston had a higher IQ than Clay) and white America took his side. He guested on television with Liberace, who played the piano as Clay recited a poetic prediction of his victory. Moreover, he proposed to Sharp and everyone loves a love story (he also met The Beatles while preparing for the fight and had no idea who they were). But the sideshow distracted from the serious skills that Clay brought into the ring and some believe that Liston underestimated his opponent.

During his training camp, Clay invited Malcolm and wife Betty to bring the kids for a `familymoon' in Miami. They were photographed together and some reports questioned whether Clay had become a Muslim. As ticket sales slowed, the promoter begged Malcolm to go home to removed the Nation of Islam spectre from the event. But the rumours prompted Sharp's grandfather to fly to Florida and order her to break her engagement because he didn't want her marrying outside her religion.

On 25 February 1964, Clay was fined for his antics at the weigh-in and Izenberg recall the media frenzy, with one radio station putting out a bulletin that Clay had been seen at the airport trying to buy a ticket out of Miami. Lampley, who had washed cars and mown lawns to buy a ticket, remembers white Americans turning against Clay for supposedly looking down on them with his boasts of becoming the king who would change the world. But Lipsyte had spotted Clay watching brother Rudy's first professional bout on the undercard and he realised that he was calm and focussed before going to work. It's suggested that this was because he had prayed beforehand in order to take his own ego out of the equation.

Lampley recalls Clay being greeted with boos on entering the ring, while Lipsyte recalls that the route had been planned to the hospital for when Liston knocked his lights out. But Round One saw Clay dance and jab so effectively that Liston looked cumbersome. Nevertheless, the radio pundits felt it was a matter of time before Liston sussed him out and nailed him. It didn't happen, however, even after the grease put on Liston's cut cheek got into Clay's eyes.

When Liston refused to leave his seat for Round Seven, Clay did a shuffle in his corner, as he realised he was the youngest World Heavyweight Champion in history. Lampley was thrilled that his hero had won and went home to shout it from the rooftops, while Lipsyte consulted notebooks speckled with Liston's blood to write his story at ringside, as Clay told TV reporters that he was `the greatest'.

Sharp recalls that he failed to keep a rendezvous in her room because - as Regina King showed in One Night in Miami... (2020) - he spent the night with Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke, and American footballer-turned-actor, Jim Brown. She returned the ring next morning before Clay went to his press conference. On being asked if he was a Muslim, he gave a calm response that Lipsyte quotes: `In the jungle, lions are with lions, and tigers with tigers, and redbirds with redbirds, and bluebirds with bluebirds. That's human nature, too. I don't want to go where I'm not wanted.'

A week later, Clay and Malcolm travel to New York, where the former renounces his slave name to become Cassius X. They tour the United Nations building, where the new champion is introduced to African diplomats as part of Malcolm's tutelage. But Elijah Muhammad was determined to prevent Malcolm claiming him as a disciple and asserted his power by bestowing the name Muhammad Ali on 6 March 1964. Preferring to follow the teacher not the student, Ali broke off with Malcolm and never saw him again.

He also made a point of correcting those who kept using his slave name, with Lipsyte revealing that editors at the New York Times scrubbed Ali each time he filed it in a report. Lampley admits being disappointed by this rejection of what he calls Clay's heritage. But he came to realise the significance of the change, while Clegg, Small, and Neal note that young Blacks were influenced by his refusal to accept a name steeped in bigotry and subjugation.

In the summer of 1964, Ali visited Ghana, Nigeria, and Egypt and Hauser cites this as the moment he recognised the responsibility he bore as a public figure and became Muhammad Ali. Malcolm was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York on 21 February 1965. When Ali came to see some of his artwork unveiled in the Waldorf Astoria in 1978, Attallah Shabazz waited across the street in the crowd and he beckoned her forward. She still considers him to be her big brother and she ends the documentary by recalling this reunion and Ali asking if her father knew how much he loved him.

While Ali aficionados will find little new in this documentary, they will be struck by its perceptiveness and sincerity in focussing on a pivotal period in the sporting and personal life of the most famous boxer of all time. Fans will also notice the different emphasis placed on events by the boxing fraternity (who are exclusively white) and those African American academics scrupulously avoiding taking sides in the Elijah Muhammad/Malcolm X feud in commenting on Muhammad Ali's socio-cultural and politico-religious significance and his legacy to an embattled community.

British fight fans will enjoy hearing the voice of Harry Carpenter over the Cooper clips, although it should be remembered that he called Ali `Clay' throughout the 1971 `Fight of the Century' with Joe Frazier. They will also admire editor Charlie Robinson's deft shifts between newsreel and photo material and the talking-head contributions. Particularly captivating are the snippets of the youthful boxer fearlessly asserting himself on camera.

The top shots down on to the speakers feel like an unnecessary affectation, while the colour slo-mo training sequences of an Ali lookalike are overused. But these are minor quibbles with an insightful profile that refuses to pull its punches whether chronicling the evolution of an icon or placing it in the wider context of Black America's ongoing struggle.


When Estonian film-maker Anna Hints was 11 years old, her grandfather died. In order to grieve fully, her grandmother took Hints, her aunt, and her niece to a smoke sauna and confided that her husband had cheated on her. Freed from the pain, she was able to make peace with the past and this realisation that the soul could be cleansed along with the body informs Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, which earned the feature debutant the Directing Award in the World Cinema Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival.

Smoke saunas are an essential part of life for the Vana-Võromaa community in South-East Estonia. All is quiet in the log cabin in the snowy woods, as one woman lights the fire, while another digs a plunge hole in the thick ice covering the nearby lake. Water hisses as it comes into contact with the warm rocks and the only sound audible is that of a scrubbing brush on back flesh. However, this is a place of spiritual, as well as physical replenishment, and the woman soon begin to speak and share.

One reveals that her family had intimated during her youth that she was ugly and that she only started to feel beautiful in her forties. Another recalls her mother's dismay at having a daughter who was too fat to be a ballerina, while another admits that the only thing she really likes about herself are her breasts. Everyone laughs, as one jokes about putting apples up her shirt because she was so impatient to emulate her buxom sister. But there's silence, as a woman reflects on a breast cancer diagnosis and how the sense of dread was alleviated by a stranger texting her for a date. In the end, he cried off, but she thanked him for helping her come to terms with the life-changing news.

Following a trip down the wooden ladder into the ice hole and a brief snowball fight, we return indoors. On non-sauna days, the cabin is used to cure meat and hunks of pork are suspended on string from a bar. But the room is soon full of women again, as they discuss family pressure to find partners and the importance of having sons who can work rather than daughters who have to be married off with a dowry. There are chuckles when one woman remembers a relative saying `at least it's something' when she told them she was dating a man with a 12 year-old child. More giggles follow, as the conversation moves on to dick pics and the memory of a man asking his partner to beg for his genitals during sex.

Spring comes and smoke billows from the chimney, as the women stomp dance on the wooden floor to an accordion. They slice the roasted meats, with a small baby tucking into small pieces with trusting wide eyes. Elsa tells the story of how she realised she was gay and how the reaction of a friend who had called her `filthy' prompted her to delay coming out to her parents.

We see rituals involving ladles of lukewarm water before two women discuss their relationships with their mothers. One remembers learning to gauge her mood by the sound of the door when she came home, while the other ponders the fact her mother regarded shows of affection as a weakness. One envies the other's courage to run away. Yet each speaker accepts that she was very much loved.

Leaves are gathered and softened to make vihts and water is relayed in buckets from the well. A couple confide that they have had abortions, with one describing the sense of desolation when her boyfriend disowned her and she forced him to pay for a trip to Helsinki for a pill termination. She speaks slowly in musing about the number of women whose husbands have no idea they have had abortions and how easily men get off when women have to endure the physical and psychological stress.

As the women lie naked on the grass singing a song about a cheating bridegroom, they tap out the rhythm on their skin. Back inside, a woman shares how her grandmother had put up with being beaten because marriage was considered for life. She had endured the postwar famines and even the humiliation of him moving another woman into the house, but she still felt a duty towards him and visited his grave.

During a delightful accordion interlude, we see the lake ripple in the breeze and boughs bristle, as golden leaves match the colour of the flame in the hut. A woman gazes into the distance, as she recalls watching her companion sleep and feeling the need to sketch her. She had been nervous when she had given her the drawing, just as she had been about starting a relationship with another woman after having previously only been attracted to men. The pair smile at the recollection that they must have been tipsy when they first got together and how, despite the tenderness of their embrace, a degree of trepidation remains that this might not be the real thing.

Water cascades down from long hair and leaves streaks of light against the bare background. Smoke wafts through the door and seems to form into a woman's face, as Mari reflects on marriage being a lifelong commitment and how she has never been afraid to wash the bodies of the deceased. Shortly after her own husband died, his spirit appeared to reassure her that he hadn't really gone away. Another relates how she had opted to give birth to her dead baby rather than have a C-section and she describes how the pain of the delivery had helped her deal with the loss of the child who slowly grew colder as it rested on her lap.

A cleansing ritual follows, as the women call upon the salt they are rubbing into their bodies to purify them. Whispered incantations accompany a vhit whisking and a dousing to wash away pain. Rain falls outside to suggest the women being in tandem with Nature, as an expectant mother stands with her bump silhouetted against a small window. Clouds bunch around the sun and white mist brushes the surface of the lake, as an elderly voice remembers the fear she felt on getting her first period, as no one had prepared her for it. Her grandmother had consoled her and this sparks a mirthful conversation about how the names for female body parts have changed over time.

Lying with her head in someone's lap and her arm up to cover her face, a woman recalls her grandmother informing her that her virginity was her most precious asset and should be given to the man she loves. However, she was raped at the age of 16 by an elderly motorist while hitchhiking and she describes coming to the realisation that surviving the ordeal was all that mattered. The camera rests on the expression of a woman listening in silence, as the speaker explains how she had run away and hidden in a ditch before two men had found her. They had offered to drive her home, but one had started to touch and kiss her because she had nothing left to worry about and could start to enjoy life.

Years later, she had spotted her assailant on the television news after two girls had escaped after being kept captive for a week. She sobs as she wonders how she can protect her daughter from such crimes. But the solidarity of the sisterhood is manifested in a long chanting session, in which the women slap their thighs to keep time, as they urge each other to sweat out the pain and fear.

Closing shots of the women cooling off in the lake are followed by a caption revealing that the `savvusanna kombõ' tradition is included on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Although only a couple of names are uttered during the film, the participants are listed in the credits as Kadi Kivilo (who features most prominently), the late Maria Meresaar, Elsa Saks, Marianne Liiv, Eva Kübar, Liis Kuresoo, Eda Veeroja, Maria Aasa, Merit Kask, Leno Kuura, Kerttu Kuslap, Sandra Lepik, Signe Mällo, and Kaarin Parts on garmon.

Although production began in 2018, the majority of the 70-odd days of filming took place during the Covid pandemic, between March 2020 and January 2021. Hints and her crew lived in a farmhouse near the sauna in order to build trust with the women and the director, cinematographer Ants Tammik, and sound recordist Tanel Kadalipp endured the sweltering conditions to ensure a conducive sense of security. Indeed, the team had to devise cooling systems to protect the equipment, although the humidity damaged two lenses and a monitor, while Hints and her colleagues suffered from smoke poisoning when they lingered too long in the cabin.

These inconveniences must seem a small price to pay for a film of such intimacy and insight. Photographed in the manner of Rembrandt and Vermeer, the contrasts between flesh and wood, water and smoke, light and shade are not only visually striking, but they also complement the tonal shifts in the conversation. Considering the gravity of much of the subject matter, there is plenty of laughter and song, although some might have preferred a little more of the lilting accordion music to Edvard Egilsson's ethereal choral score, which is markedly less evocative than Huldar Freyr Arnarson inspired sound design.

The 14 women deserve enormous credit for exposing themselves both physically and emotionally and their eloquence and elegance says much for the respectful and supportive manner in which Hints approached this laudably collaborative project, right down to the fact that the women were consulted during the editing process. Much of what they say about the changing nature of womanhood is consolingly relatable, while the accounts of rape and stillbirth are heartbreakingly incisive. But Hints meticulously balances trauma with optimism, imperfection with profundity, and sweat with wit to demonstrate the durability, beauty, and potency of womankind, as well as the honesty, collectivity, and integrity of which menfolk can only dream.


Although she has adapted Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (2000) and Rachel Klein's The Moth Diaries (2011), Canadian director Mary Harron has specialised in biopics. Since debuting with the Valerie Solanas profile, I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), she has recalled the careers of a 1950s pin-up in The Notorious Bettie Page (2005) and a 1990s Playboy Playmate in The Anna Nicole Story (2013), while also seeking to understand Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten in Charlie Says (2018). Now, she turns her attention to a Surrealist icon in Dalíland, which goes in general release in the UK in the same week that Quentin Dupieux's Daaaaaali! screens at the 67th BFI London Film Festival.

New York, 1974 and James Linton (Christopher Briney) has just started working at the Dufresne Gallery for Christoffe (Alexander Beyer). He is sent to the St Regis Hotel to deliver a package of cash to Spanish artist Salvador Dalí (Ben Kingsley) and his Russian wife, Gala (Barbara Sukowa). In the lift, he meets the couple's English secretary, Captain Moore (Rupert Graves), who lets him into the party happening in Dalí's suite. Gala is impressed by Linton's looks and insists he accompanies Christoffe to a dinner gathering that evening.

Warned by Christoffe that Gala is a maneater, Linton is reminded to keep her sweet because Dalí needs to complete several pieces for an upcoming exhibition. Fascinated by the way the artist speaks in enigmatic epigrams and delights in simultaneously performing and subverting, Linton watches Gala's reaction to the arrival of Dalí's new muse, Amanda Lear (Andreja Pejic), and listens intently as he discusses the giant penis he will create to circle the globe and ejaculate over the United Nations as his gesture towards world peace.

One of Dalí's coterie, Ginesta (Suki Waterhouse), notices Linton and teases him about being one of Gala's playthings. But he takes art seriously and notices during his research that Dalí has used various signatures during his career and tries to convince Christoffe that this would make a suitable subject for a monograph. Hurriedly putting together a photocopied outline, Linton presents this to Dalí, who takes him on as an assistant (although he is also acting as Christoffe's spy to ensure the paintings are finished).

While mixing paint, Linton hears how Dalí (Ezra Miller) and Gala (Avital Lvova) met on the beach at Cadaqués in 1929, when she was travelling with French poet husband Paul Éluard and he with friend Luis Buñuel. Despite the 10-year age gap, they had become inseparable and Dalí confides in Linton that he needs her drive to keep him going, even though they bicker endlessly.

Newly dubbed `San Sebastian', Linton is invited to a `Princes and Paupers' party, where Dalí is discussing holograms with Alice Cooper (Mark McKenna), while Gala flirts with Jeff Fenholt (Zachary Nachbar-Seckel), who is playing the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway. Bored, Linton and Ginestra slope off together to make love. However, he's soon rushing off to collect a case full of cash from dealer Desmond Carter (Jack Shalloo), which she ploughs into Fenholt's failing tilt at pop stardom.

Christoffe is furious when Dalí throws a lavish party, but Linton is intrigued by his need to lord it over a court. With Pablo Picasso gone, he knows he is an unrivalled artistic superstar and confides to Linton that he hates abstract painting because it removes the sense of illusion that links him to the great representational artists he so reveres. Having ensured his famous moustache is waxed to curling perfection, Dalí makes a grand entrance with Lear on his arm. But he ends the evening hiding behind a screen to masturbate while Ginestra lures a cocaine-fuelled Linton into a threesome for his amusement. As she tells him, everyone is in Dalí's retinue for a purpose.

Having helped Dalí finish the exhibition in three days by recruiting beautiful women to make butt prints, Linton is dismayed to find Ginestra on the arm of another man at the opening. He also sees Dalí and Gala arguing furiously about Fenholt, who is making a fool of himself while chatting to Alice Cooper. When Dalí falls through a curtain, Moore laughs it off as a typical prank and the pair recover their composure. But Linton is taken aback by the antics and feels betrayed when Christoffe fires him because the critics refused to review the show because they no longer take Dalí seriously.

Moore offers him a job in Europe, however, and Linton arrives in Cadaqués after collecting some paper from a supplier in Paris. He finds Dalí rolling on the floor convinced he will lose his hand because of a cut finger. Dispatched by Moore to fetch Gala from the Castle of Púbol she is sharing with Fenholt, Linton listens as she explains how she had pounded pavements to get him noticed as a young man and how she blamed Walt Disney for turning his head in Hollywood by making him think he was a celebrity. She fusses over Dalí's finger and Linton realises how much they need each other, as the artist tells him about the first time he had shown her `The Persistence of Memory' in 1931.

He gets another insight, when Dalí takes Linton and Lear on a nocturnal ramble to the rock where Gala had once asked him to kill her. The trio stand and watch the flashback and the older Dalí insists that she remains the fire who generates the anger he needs to create. Suddenly, he starts conducting the wind with his stick, only to fall and lament that Gala isn't at his side (she is praying not to get old to a photo of Fenholt as Christ).

The next day, Linton is appalled to learn that Gala has fired Moore for stealing. As they stroll on the beach, he explains that Dalí trusts Gala to control his business affairs, but that their extravagances have eaten away at his fortune. Moore confesses that Dalí signs blank sheets for printers to make duplicate copies and pass them off as authentic lithographs and urges Linton not to be naive because there's a hungry market out there and a painting is never simply a picture.

On hearing that Fenholt has sold a portrait that Gala had given him, Linton tells Dalí that bad things are happening around him. He refuses to believe it, but confronts Gala, who insists that she needs cash to make her lover a star. She falls down some steps and Dalí is distraught. He sits impassively by her bed when she summons Linton and spits in his face before dismissing him. He leaves taking a brush and a tube of yellow paint as souvenirs, along with the signature book he had made for him.

In 1985, Linton travels to Cadaqués on seeing a news report that Dalí had suffered burns in a house fire. He finds Lear at the hospital, who has been denied access despite having become a pop star. She confirms that Dalí has not been himself since Gala died three years earlier at the age of 87. The doctor blocks Linton's efforts to see Dalí, but spots him being wheeled past and is thrilled to be recognised on returning the signature book. Back in his room, Dalí flicks through the pages with a trembling hand, but a trademark flash comes to his eyes, as tears form. On the beach, Linton looks back to see the great man furiously conducting the wind on the promontory looking out on to the rocks he had featured in `The Great Masturbator' (1929).

Scripted by Harron's husband, John C. Walsh, this would make a decent double bill with Paul Morrison's Little Ashes (2008), which traced the 1920s friendship between Dalí, Buñuel, and Federico García Lorca. Gala also puts in an appearance, but the films share a slenderness of characterisation that prevents the audience from identifying with the three Spaniards as either people or artists.

Given such little psychological depth in which to root their performances, Ben Kingsley and Barbara Sukowa produce spirited impersonations that bring to mind Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange's fearsome turns as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Ryan Murphy's Feud (2017). Rupert Graves provides accomplished support, while Christopher Briney does what he can with the cipherlike Linton's rather limited repertoire of looking surprised or desolated, as he's whirlwinded between decadent 70s soirées and sordid displays of dysfunction. It's sad to see a master iconoclast being reduced to self-parody for the benefit of some pathetic liggers, but this feels more like a sequence of arresting set-pieces rather than an evolving and involving narrative.

With Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel standing in for the St Regis, production designer Isona Rigau does a solid job of conveying the chaos in which Dalí lived and worked. Angela Oxley Evans's make-up and hair job on Kingsley is also impressive, as are Hannah Edwards's costumes. But the soundtrack does a good deal of the period heavy lifting after it recovers from following a caption stating `1974' with Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel's 1975 chart-topper, `Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)'. Despite competition from Roxy Music, Alice Cooper and both The Detroit Emeralds and Spinners, Edmund Butt's score makes its mark, along with Marcel Zyskind's photography and Alex Mackie's editing. Notwithstanding the cumbersome flashbacks and the Factoryesque feel to the St Regis clique, Harron's direction is incisive in the way it persists in exposing the megalomaniac affectations and debilitating vulnerabilities that enabled Dalí to exploit and be exploited. But the film suffers fatally from its failure to secure the rights to any of his paintings.

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