“Sometimes I go to the cinema and I see a movie where the directors or the filmmakers are telling me what to think, what to feel. They are giving me all the answers, and I’m like, “What am I doing here?” I try to have an active audience that are thinking and feeling for themselves.”
“Cinema is always a political art, at the end.”
Born: 19 August 1976, Santiago, Chile.
Directing career: 2006 –
Traits: Themes of personal and political (Chilean) history, cultural memory, political impunity, the role of mass media on cultural consciousness. Use of Digital Video for a distinct look, full of hues, hazes, and at times fusing archival footage with new digital film.
Collaborators: Alfredo Castro (actor), Sergio Armstrong (cinematographer), Gael Garcia Bernal (actor), Juan Larraín (producer and brother).
Tony Manero (2008)
Pablo Larraín’s Tony Manero was inspired in the writer-director’s imagination by a photograph he randomly saw in a book. It showed off a well-dressed man in 1970s attire which, imagination being an impulsive imp, triggered in Larraín the idea that this man could be both a disco-lover and a serial killer, an idea which stuck in his mind. Larraín’s eventual transformation of this seed into a full-blown film takes us to 1978, Saturday-night-fever era for some but the brutal years of Pinochet’s grip in Chile. Or for some, both, like Raul (Larraín regular Alfredo Castro), a 50-something sociopath whose obsession with John Travolta’s character effectively rules his life. Followed by Dardennes-style handheld camerawork, we find Raul religiously watching every repeat screening of the film, reciting the lines by heart, dressing exactly like Tony, down to the meticulously chosen colour of buttons. Most of all, he wants to be looked at by others as Manero, having no discernible personality of his own, and the ends to which he’ll go to for this are shocking. This goes way beyond mere fandom; as we soon discover, Raul and his fragile ego are soul-destroyed. He is a genuinely unlikable and unpredictable protagonist – and Castro is pitch-perfect in his portrayal of this blank zombie of a man, as necessarily dark as the tone and lighting of this film.
Meanwhile, in the background of the Santiago streets Raul struts down, constant reminders pop up of the oppressive police state which Pinochet’s Chile was, and which no amount of disco can mount an escape from. This grim, emotionally dead totalitarian society is, Larraín reminds us, just the source from which a character like Raul would emerge. The parallels between Raul and the state of the nation are in evidence even down to the superficial worship of Western culture. Whether it’s US-backed free-market economic reforms and courting the friendship of Reagan and Thatcher for Pinochet, or aping Travolta’s gyrating for Raul, in the end all of it is cultural imperialism. Much like he would do four years later in No, Larraín also explores the hold television and consumerist pop-culture have on our aspirations, individual and cultural, with the inclusion of a TV Tony Manero lookalike contest (a sort of Chilean version of the erstwhite British Saturday night TV filler ‘Stars in Their Eyes‘) which Raul becomes hell-bent on winning.
With its grimy look and unpalatable central character, Tony Manero isn’t particularly pleasant viewing; no surprise that it took the less harsh but no less impressive No for Larraín’s full international breakthrough. Its uncompromising honesty, however, makes its force as a commentary on Chile’s immediate past. Larraín had already emerged as a key new voice in Chilean cinema, with plenty to say and imaginatively unusual ways to say it, and continues to be a director to follow. (June 2015)
No is 36-year-old Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s fourth film and his third in a loose trilogy set during the Pinochet era, after Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem (2010). With a tone surprisingly cheerier than these darker preceding films, and with the ever-reliable Gael Garcia Bernal in the lead role, No is potentially a real breakthrough film for Larraín’s cinema towards wider spectatorship, but without losing its political edge.
The film takes place in 1988, 15 years after the CIA-backed coup which killed democratically-elected President Salvador Allende and put military dictator Augusto Pinochet in power. Now, the changing international political landscape has left Pinochet out-of-favour with the major powers and facing pressure to, at least superficially, seem like a democratic leader, forcing the dictator to call a national referendum on his leadership. Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, a savvy advertising executive based on a combination of real-life characters, who is approached by the anti-Pinochet contingent to head their allocated television campaign for the “No” vote.
But as we see in the opening sequences, where Rene is effectively courted by both sides in turn, he is apolitical and initially works on the anti-Pinochet electoral broadcasts purely for the professional challenge it implies. This is what creates the main dynamic of the film, and to the dismay of those around him he treats the TV spots not by making reference to the deaths and torture under Pinochet’s regime, but no differently to the Coca Cola commercials he is more used to making. Using the 1980s spiel of aspirational marketing, he sells the idea of happiness, with catchy jingles and smiling actors. The message to the Chilean people is a simple one: You can have this happiness if you vote No. Yet as Rene follows through his actions despite the danger they put him in, we see his reasons evolve and his investment in the campaign become deeper, as some sort of politicisation process takes place even as he is paradoxically depoliticising (and commercialising_ the No campaign.
No is a compelling story of democracy coming about in the most unexpected of ways and of a corrupt system being brought down from within, with great attention to the details of the ’80s setting. Larrain’s decision to film with actual 1980s U-matic cameras adds to the period feel and gives the lighting occasional saturated hues recalling the rainbow logo of the No campaign. But most cleverly the lo-fi look means the transition between the action and the real (and often hilarious) “No” and “Yes” ads which are inserted in the film is seamless. Rene’s ambivalent reaction at the end also leaves just enough of a hint that this ‘MTV-isation’ of democracy and politics into mere advertising and slogans (a phenomenon still visible in any recent election campaign worldwide) is not an unequivocal reason for celebration, no matter the outcome of the vote. (July 2013)
Jackie (2016)/Neruda (2016)
In a thought-piece a while back, I mused on the proliferation of the tediously academic biopics filling the mainstream, films that belittle their subject figure, taking their lives and making them fit the formulaic middle-of-the-road blueprint of Hollywood narratives. But there are ‘good’ ways, interesting ways, of making a film inspired by the life of a well-known person: you can focus on one episode, a few days perhaps, in the subject’s life (e.g. Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh or the Woolf section of The Hours); alternatively you can take an impressionistic approach, moving loosely between different parts of the subject’s life without trying to facilely sum it up (e.g. Bird, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, or more recently Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner); or you can take more artistic licence with the facts and feature your subject in a fiction, not purely biographical anymore but perhaps in tune with the spirit of their personality (e.g. Soderbergh’s Kafka, or more recently the Miles Davis film Miles Ahead). In his busy 2016, Pablo Larrain managed to use two of these strategies in two different, both very accomplished, biopics.
First, there was Jackie, with Natalie Portman embodying Jackie Kennedy over a period of a few days, the worst of her life, those just after the bloody event in Dallas 1963, intertwined with flashbacks to 1961 and her live television tour of the White House. Here, like in No, archival footage (though this time recreated) is meshed with the film narrative’s contemporary. While framing this intricate structure is Jackie’s interview with a initially cynical journalist (Billy Crudup), less than a week after the tragedy. The backs and forths combine to create not just a portrait of a woman in desperate grief, clutching to make sense of the blow Fate has dealt her (especially tackled in a central tete-a-tete between her and John Hurt’s priest), but also one aware of the import of the moment for her husband’s legacy. This is a public figure who, although extremely protective of her privacy, just as does RFK (Peter Sarsgaard) who bitterly bemoans that the Kennedy clan will now be remembered as no more than ‘pretty rich people’. So yeah, the harrowing internal pain Jackie is going through is vividly felt (and the fact the film manages to make us empathise with a person whose life was so alien from most of us is a definite strong-point) and adroitly underlined by Mica Levi’s menacing, almost always present, score and Stéphane Fontaine’s swooshing almost sea-sick camera, giving the impression that Jackie is drowning amidst all this weight on her. But at the same, no she is not drowning, in fact she is shown to still be a shrewd negotiator of her public image, knowingly playing the role of a dignified widow when eyes or cameras are on her, a role she comes to understand she must now fit into for the sake of her husband’s legacy, and indeed even for the country itself (the USA after all is founded on mythology). This works as a biopic because the mystery remains, we get a glimpse, an insight, into Jackie, but we know she is not revealing all her cards – that after all is the major theme of this film, the gap between her public and private selves and the inscrutability of Portman is perfect for this.
Then came Neruda, an even greater film and an even looser biopic. The subject is Pablo Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco), Nobel-prize winning poet and diplomat, a national icon in Larraín’s native Chile. But this is not a film about Neruda in any real way, although the events depicted here have some historical accuracy at their roots. It is 1948 and Neruda finds himself threatened with arrest for speaking out against the anti-Communist brutality of President González Videla (Larraín regular Alfredo Castro), and thus is kickstarted a game of cat-and-mouse, between Neruda and an officially appointed police inspector, Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal) – who is in fact the primary character of the film, and even its subjective narrator through a strangely omniscient voiceover. Here fiction and imagination kick in. The world of the movie is Nerudian, much like Soderbergh’s Kafka was a Kafkaesque film with Kafka as the lead character, rather than a straight biopic. It then extrapolates, full of momentum, into a panoply of different genres: policier, film noir, road movie, the existentialist western à la Monte Hellman, and strong lashings of meta playfulness. There is the sense that Neruda, here depicted against as complex character, with multiple facets to his personality at different times, some likable and others far less so (Neruda’s friend Picasso would have approved of such a cubist multi-angled portrait), is in some way writing his own police chase and investigation, which may be inspired right out of the pages of the pulp detective novels he loves to read. The hapless Peluchonneau, beautifully played as a blank slate (or should that be blank page) by Bernal, is totally committed to his job and capturing the great poet, but is he just a pawn in the game? Like in Jackie, the central subject of the biopic is shown trying to sculpt their own legend, and the fascination lies in the grey zone between their imagined selves and their real selves, how they want to be seen and how they ended up being seen. (May 2017)