‘Little Ashes’: Tortured Artist, By Kurt Loder

Robert Pattinson trapped in strange new movie.

Some months before he began filming “Twilight,” the movie that would ignite his career, Robert Pattinson shot a low-budget art-house film in Spain called [url id="http://www.mtv.com/movies/movie/393486/moviemain.jhtml"]“Little Ashes.”[/url] “Twilight” was released last November; now comes the earlier picture. We can only imagine how Pattinson must feel about this.

The movie, directed by Paul Morrison, has an interesting subject: the 1922 meeting of three soon-to-be-renowned Spanish artists — filmmaker Luis Buñuel, painter Salvador Dalí and the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca — at the Residencia de Estudiantes, a Madrid arts institute. García Lorca is played by the Spanish TV actor Javier Beltrán, who somewhat resembles the young writer. Buñuel is portrayed by an Englishman, Matthew McNulty (“Control”), who looks nothing at all like the great director. And Pattinson has been cast, disastrously, as Dalí.

Actually, it’s hard to imagine who could play this outlandish character — a man who appeared to believe that life itself was too small to contain him. In Pattinson’s attempted impersonation, we see the pampered young Dalí arriving at the Residencia in a hugely ridiculous frilly shirt and jaw-length bowl-cut hair. Tottering out of his grand car into a bustle of fellow students, he looks like a marionette with a few strings missing, or a rag doll in need of repair. He seems trapped and terrified. But since social reticence is not a quality we associate with the overbearingly outré Dalí, we soon begin to wonder if it isn’t the actor himself who feels desperately out of place in this strange film.

The picture’s focus is on the relationship between García Lorca, a closeted and tormented homosexual, and the flamboyantly odd painter, whose sexual inclinations are anybody’s guess. (He claimed to be exclusively heterosexual.) Dalí knew the poet was in love with him, but always insisted that on the two occasions when García Lorca came on to him sexually, he turned him down. The movie would have it otherwise. (After a while, we wish that we could, too.)

There are some truly shameless scenes here. We see García Lorca shooting lovelorn glances at Dalí, then scurrying off in a fit of guilt to confide to a plaster Madonna that “I have had impure thoughts.” We see the boys recumbent on a beach, Dalí with his head propped on his friend’s thigh as García Lorca reads his poetry aloud. There’s an artsy nude moonlight swim that with only the tiniest of adjustments could be converted into a cologne commercial. And there’s a spectacularly lurid interlude in which García Lorca, desperate to demonstrate an acceptable manliness, has sex with a woman on a bed while Dalí watches (possibly masturbating, not sure) from a dark corner of the room.

For a movie that was shot on hi-def video, “Little Ashes” has surprisingly warm tones; and the costume design — all those dapper period two-tone shoes, argyle sweaters and creamy wool suits — is first-rate. But as soon as Pattinson steps forth with Dalí’s famous up-twirled mustaches pasted to his face (they look like a pair of bent centipedes huddled on his upper lip), the picture — such as it’s been up to that point — collapses. The actor is in a hopeless position. There’s probably no way to deliver a line such as “I would like an enema”; but there’s no reason anyone should be called on to say, “I’m going to Paris to see Luis — he’s going to introduce me to Picasso and the Surrealists.” There’s barely a moment when you don’t feel embarrassed for Pattinson. You want to call his agent to come rescue him from this film. Or maybe just call him a new agent altogether.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “Star Trek,” also new in theaters this week.

Will the vampires grab more trophies than the slumdog? What was the year’s ultimate onscreen WTF moment? It’s up to you to decide the winners of the 2009 MTV Movie Awards. Vote now, and tune in on May 31 at 9 p.m. ET, when the big show airs live from the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, California.

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