"It's very complicated": Salvador Dalí biopic delves into odd and kinky relationship with wife Gala

"Dalíland" star Barbara Sukowa discusses the couple's sex life, how to play a corpse and working with Fassbinder

Published September 11, 2022 10:59AM (EDT)

Ben Kingsley and Barbara Sukowa in "Dalíland" (Rekha Garton and Marcel Zyskind)
Ben Kingsley and Barbara Sukowa in "Dalíland" (Rekha Garton and Marcel Zyskind)

In "Dalíland," Gala (Barbara Sukowa), the wife of the famous surrealist, Salvador Dalí (Ben Kingsley), claims that people, "Look through me, like I'm not there," and the artist himself describes her as "the secret within my secret." She is vain and concerned about both aging and money. She fights with Dalí to inspire and encourage him to make art, but they also come to blows regarding her much younger lover, Jeff (Zachary Nachbar-Seckel), whose dubious music career she is privately financing. 

"They didn't have what they call a normal sexual relationship."

Much of the couple's behavior is seen from the perspective of James (Christopher Briney), a young art gallery assistant who comes to work for Dalí and Gala in 1974 New York. When James is asked about the experience, he replies, "It's like I landed on another planet." "Dalíland," directed by Mary Harron, is a slightly surreal biopic, full of lavish parties, artmaking with nude women, a flashback featuring Ezra Miller as the Young Dalí, and much talk about the selling of the artist's work. 

Sukowa provides the film with a formidable presence, as Gala is a powerful woman who is to be respected and honored, and who can dismiss James with the flick of her wrist. The actress, who rose to prominence making films with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Margarthe von Trotta, is a joy to watch because she gets to be frisky feeling James up as he enters Dalí's esteemed circle, as well as vulnerable when she is faced with some hard truths. There are also moments of tenderness and rage.

The actress chatted with Salon about playing Gala, her approach to biopics, and her career in general in advance of the film's World Premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. 

You've played Rosa Luxemburg, Hannah Arendt, Friderike Zweig and now Gala. What research do you do to understand these real-life women?

I'm reading biographies about them. I real one bio of Gala I had the feeling the author really hated her and was almost misogynist. I read Dalí's biography and what he said about her. I talked to one person who had actually seen the couple in New York in the 1970s, sitting in restaurant and gave me her impression.

What was your impression of Gala? You get some juicy scenes and speeches. She feels invisible, she seeks out younger men, and consults tarot cards. She has moments of anger,  fear about being poor, and episodes of vanity. Is she deluding herself and unable to face reality, or is her "performance" all about control and maintaining power?

"I could imagine that Gala maybe felt she got the short end of the stick because [Dali] was always at the center. He is the king at the table."

Dalí would not have become Dalí without Gala. When they met each other, he was a very eccentric, almost hysterical person. Gala grounded him somewhat. She had some artistic ambitions. There's an interesting passage in Dalí's bio where he writes about Gala and some artwork that she did. The way he describes it, she really could have been an artist on her own. She saw very clearly that his genius was way beyond her capacities. It was the time in which she lived. She was with Paul Éluard and Max Ernst, so she was quite an eccentric person. That was not unusual in Paris at the time. There were Russian women who lived as muses and as eccentric women who were adored by society. The film is about these two people who can't really face getting old, which is why they surround themselves with [younger] people. Gala and Dalí had no intimate relations anymore. That's why she is going up to these young men. He was a voyeur. They didn't have what they call a normal sexual relationship. 

She is seen going off after Jeff during a press conference for her husband . . .

She's also doing it to please Dalí. It's part of her connection to Dalí. He gets something out of seeing her with these people. It's very complicated. The challenge was not to turn her into a caricature or a cartoon. She is very extreme. She did do these things like spit at people and hit them. That's how she was.

DalilandAndreja Pejic and Ben Kingsley in "Dalíland" (Rekha Garton and Marcel Zyskind)

Dalí and Gala fight, and he admires her "raging like a fire." He needs her to care for him, but she can be selfish, preferring to be with her lover. Gala was Dalí's muse. What observations do you have about the relationship between them?

It was a push and pull, and they really both needed each other very much. Over time, I could imagine that Gala maybe felt she got the short end of the stick because he was always at the center. He is the king at the table. She tries to develop her own world alongside that. All his business is in her hand. She compensated for things she didn't have with money. There's a reference to her gambling. She spends a lot of money and is ruthless with that. People will say she pushed him in a more commercial direction, and he may have made a different kind of art towards end of his life. They wanted to keep that lifestyle, so that's what she did. 

Dalí was a genius, yes, but he was also a prankster, and perhaps desperate in the '70s, as the film portrays his career in decline with his work was being copied and his heyday had largely passed. What did you think or discover about Dalí's career at this time? 

I don't know. [Laughs] I'm not an art historian or have the expertise to talk about his art. I think his life became his art. If you compare it to artists like Fuglø, who created a whole lifestyle around their art. Dalí took Gala seriously when he asks her, "What you think about this painting?" She says, "It's a little imbalanced." She has a good eye, and she knows when he's good and not good, but the demand for money became really strong.

Let's talk about your career. Like Gala is to Dalí, you certainly have been a muse to male filmmakers over the years starting with Fassbinder. Can you talk about your working relationships, with him and other filmmakers?

It's always wonderful to do more films with one filmmaker. You get to know each other and know to function together. The two people I l really loved to work with were Fassbinder and Margarethe von Trotta. Margarethe Von Trotta and I became close friends. Fassbinder was different, the fascinating thing about him — and why you read so many contradictory things about him — was that he treated everyone in the way he thought he'd get the most out of him or her with their work. I had a positive personal experience with him because he treated me nicely and politely. Others will tell you he was a monster, which is true. But I think he knew he wouldn't get anything out of me if he treated me badly. I would turn around and go away. 

I've always enjoyed seeing you playing formidable women on screen, in the aforementioned "Rosa Luxemburg," to the femme fatale in "Europa" and your remarkable performances in "The Two of Us." What can you say about the roles you take and the women you play and the energy it requires to play them? Gala has a few really intense scenes. 

It was in the text that she's angry and raging, but to me, I really don't know how [a performance] happens. It a combination of things — the script, the director, my acting partners. It comes together. I like to be very open. I do try to choose roles I have not done before. I had not played a role like Gala before. She's not anything like Rosa Luxemburg or [Fassbinder's] Lola. I tried to look at roles that are different and have some complexity, that are ambiguous, contradictory. I often don't know how to do them. That's how it starts. I had no clue how am I going do to this? I like the challenge. So, it sometimes creates itself. I surprise myself — how did that happen? 

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Likewise, your career shifts between Europe, where you play leads, and America, where you provide support in independent and popular films and television. What do you enjoy about doing supporting roles that sometimes involve just a scene or two?

I'm limited with my accent. I very rarely get a bigger role in an American film. I often hesitate when they ask me, "Can you do this?" Then I decide, "It's going to be fun." There has to be a good director or interesting people in it. 

This is a morbid but also surreal question to end on, but I have to ask if you played Gala's corpse in "Dalíland?" I thought it was a very funny sequence.

Yeah, it was me! I just sat and imagined I am a corpse. I tried not to move. When you play a dead person, if you go a little bit cross-eyed and you don't focus, that works to keep your eyes from following movement. It is a hilarious idea [what happened with Gala's corpse] — but it's true. It's not an invention. It's what they did!


By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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