It's not unreasonable to expect that a film partially about two of the most famous Surrealists in history might possibly have some slender relationship to Surrealist art, I don't think. But that is not the movie that Paul Morrison's Little Ashes wants to be. Herein is a film detailing the young lives of poet Federico García Lorca (Javier Beltrán), painter Salvador Dalí (Robert Pattinson) and filmmaker Luis Buñuel (Matthew McNulty) during their time studying together at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid that implicitly argues that the most interesting thing about these three men was their gnarled romantic entanglements. Not their politics, not their avant-garde art (Dalí and Buñuel were among the greatest Surrealists in their respective media, García Lorca was shot for the potent political content of his work); their love lives.

Which, okay, their personal lives weren't even half uninteresting: depending on whose whispering, rumored version of events you listen to, Dalí and García Lorca were lovers before Dalí went and became too famous for words, while Buñuel was a deeply-closeted homosexual whose desires manifested themselves in vicious, homophobic tirades that stood weirdly at odds to his customary damn-conventional-morality radicalism. That's all interesting enough, although it's worth remembering that these were three men who tried to overthrow all the rules of polite society, and the Fascist government threatening to take over Spain at the time, using revolutionary, taboo-busting artwork. Which is, by any means, more compelling than a fairly straightforward, factory-issue "tortured homosexual love affair" plot. Though as I believe, it would have been possible to redeem the film if it were presented in the style of the artists' work, so to speak: if Little Ashes were as rule-breaking and radical and aggressive as Dalí, García Lorca and Buñuel were in their lives and art, it could have been something real neat.

Instead, Little Ashes is a period picture-cum-biopic, and ultimately as anonymous, boring and pointless as any such combination ever turns out to be. This is not a film that brings to rough, fleshy life these three great men; it embalms them in good intentions and achingly sincere respect for their work. Director Paul Morrison and writer Philippa Goslett, bless their precious little hearts, certainly understand why these artists were important - we can tell because of all the declamatory speeches and glamour shots of paintings and lengthy, film-stopping recitations of poems by Beltrán, an actor not really equal to the task - but you'd never know why from the final movie, which is as inert as you'd ever hope to see. This is naught but R-rated Masterpiece Theater, and it is exactly the kind of flavorless bourgeois froth that the men it takes for its subjects would have ridiculed mercilessly.

As a narrative, its greatest flaw is a deplorable lack of context; we are given only the bare information for the story to function, but no more. So we understand that homosexuality is illegal in Spain in the 1920s, and that there is a culture of iconoclastic young people seeking to prevent the Fascists from gaining any more power, and that's just about it. We're not really shown why, exactly, these young Turks and their art are so powerfully condemnatory of the conservative regime; although to provide a proper framework for that knowledge would require that Little Ashes be an actively political work, and this is something that it avoids at any cost. But hell, why complain about the film's apoliticism: we're not even given a good idea of how much time is passing at any given moment, so that events which are months or even years apart seem to take place in the same week. By the 1928 debut of Buñuel and Dalí's Un chien andalou, the final major event before the film hops forward eight years to its dénouement, there's no internal reason not to assume that it's still 1923 or '24 (the film opens in 1922). This is, of course, one of the chief problems with biopics: if you know the subject, they're hopelessly reductive, and if you do not know the subject, the film generally will not help you keep up with names and dates.

The saving grace in such matters is usually the performers (this is why, I believe, they're so over-rewarded by trophy-granting bodies), and in this respect, unfortunately, Little Ashes is not like every other biopic; it is marred by one awful performance, one mediocre performance, and one slightly-better-than-mediocre performance that is mostly kept offscreen. The awful performance is given by Pattinson, who also happens to be the only reason the film was given even the teeny-tiny release it's enjoying, thanks to his presence in the blockbuster teenybopper epic Twilight; an ironic thing indeed given that the two films have as far as I can tell no naturally overlapping audience (though the teens who sneak into Little Ashes hoping to see the actor's naked abdomen and pubic patch will leave fulfilled). At any rate, Pattinson is hopelessly lost in his role, wielding an unconvincing accent like a club and losing all thread of the character the further into self-serving absurdism he goes. Even the mustache outacts him. It's sad more than anything. The mediocre performance is given by Beltrán, a Spanish actor who has never done anything else, and it kind of shows: he's not given much to work with, other than pining after Pattinson with big puppy eyes, and he does not rise above the role (nor does he sink under it, as his costar). The better-than-mediocre actor is McNulty, whose accent is only a bit better than Pattinson's, but who at least manages to exude fire and anger and righteousness that lead one to believe that he, at least, familiarised himself with the real-life man he'd be portraying. And, of course, he's shunted offscreen for the great bulk of the movie, which is given over to the love affair between the other two.

And actually, the best performance is given by Marina Gatell as Magdalena, a woman desperately in love with García Lorca, enough so that stays with him even knowing that he's gay. Her scenes in this sex-heavy picture are the only time that actually sex seems to come into it; when she smolders at Beltrán, you can feel it in a way that his own schmoopy glances at Pattinson have all the ardor of a wet sock.

It's kind of impressive how the movie gets everything wrong: flaccid direction of a thin and confusing story that does nothing to elucidate the people at its center, who are played by middle-weight actors. There's absolutely nothing about Little Ashes that's even a bit pleasing to watch; funny that the first completely awful film of the summer should be in the arthouses, but there you go.