Pablo Larrain - El Conde
Credit: Netflix
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Streaming Scene

El Conde — Pablo Larraín

September 6, 2023

Like a political cartoon stretched out to feature length and shot like a German Expressionist film, Pablo Larraín’s El Conde possesses one of the year’s more attention-grabbing premises. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the film posits that former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell), who ruled the South American nation with an iron fist for over two decades, is, in fact, a centuries-old vampire. And, having faked his 2006 demise, Pinochet has been living in exile, waiting for a death that never seems to come. Shown in the film’s prologue flying through the air in full military regalia — his cape fluttering in the wind as he soars through the heavens like a fascist Superman — and cutting the hearts out of his victims with a giant curved knife, Pinochet has since been reduced to puttering around a dilapidated estate in a Members Only jacket, all while his five grown children conspire to kill him in order to lay claim to a trove of pilfered funds and real estate properties. Having once inspired fear in millions, the decrepit old ghoul now keeps his hearts in the back of the freezer, liquifying them in a blender on the rare occasions he even demonstrates the will to eat, all the while sourly grousing about how ungrateful his former subjects were. It’s an inflammatory conceit — or would be if Pinochet still had partisans outside of the most Commie-hating of conservatives — using provocation and stylized gore to interrogate the atrocities committed by his administration, as well as more prescient concerns of a gerontocracy and a kleptocracy. In truth, the entire film is really just a variation on the same poison-tipped joke for 110 minutes; unlike Pinochet, however, there’s considerable life in it.

Guided along by a tut-tutting, profane voiceover that can’t be bothered to conceal its contempt for everyone on screen — viewers with a strong feel for historical accents may get far ahead of the revelation as to who our narrator has been the whole time, but their presence places the film firmly within the extended Netflix universe — we’re introduced to a young Pinochet in 1700s France. A soldier in Louis XVI’s army who feeds on local prostitutes, the then young and dashing Augusto witnesses the execution of Marie Antoinette from up close and vows, then and there, to quash revolution wherever it may spring up. After jumping around from political hotspots in Haiti, Russia, and Algeria, Pinochet lands in Chile (described as both “an insignificant corner of South America” and “a land of fatherless peasants”), where he’s quickly able to rise up the ranks of the military. Despite appearing like “a pimp in the hide of a banana republic mafioso,” Pinochet rescues the nation from “a Bolshevik infestation,” with the film cheerfully recounting the regime’s coup d’états, death squads, disappearing of political dissidents, and unspeakable acts of torture. Having skated on actual consequences, this version of Pinochet and his assorted cronies and sycophants can’t help but look back on decades of transgressions against humanity, not with regret, but rather with wistful remembrances of the good old days.

Now spending his dying (he hopes anyway) days in an uninviting, seaside villa falling down around him — complete with functioning guillotine on the grounds — Pinochet plays the role of a modern-day Nosferatu: shuffling around the bowels of his home, too weakened and dejected to hunt for flesh, all while entertaining a less literal form of bloodsucker. Having lost all patience in ever securing their inheritance, Pinochet’s middle-aged children employ a young nun named Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger), posing as a forensic accountant but in actuality an exorcist, to drive Satan out of their father, killing him in the process. But introducing a pretty young woman into the mix presents an unanticipated variable, reinstilling in Pinochet a vigor he hasn’t felt in some time. His appetites restored, he begins to ponder all the institutions he’s yet to plunder and destroy — high on the list: the International Court in the Hague — perhaps with a fetching new vampire bride at his side.

Larraín has spent the last few years jumping back and forth between visually sparse films chronicling Chile’s turbulent recent history (No, The Club) and heavily aestheticized portraits of solitary figures entombed by their wealth and proximity to power (Jackie, Spencer). El Conde, then, feels like a concerted effort to marry the two sensibilities. But whereas the filmmaker’s been guilty of ponderousness in the past — Spencer in particular plays like a protracted game of spot the symbolism — there’s a directness to his latest which all but slaps you in the face. The omnipotent narration gets to land the more scurrilous lines — in introducing Pinochet’s longtime torturer turned faithful butler, Fyodor, the man is offhandedly referred to as “human pigswill” — but with every character so openly venal and self-involved, there’s no shortage of verbal bloodletting. Like the Roy children of TV’s Succession, there’s a transparent covetousness to even the human characters, and while their self-dealings, theft of national resources, and all around immorality may not rise to the same monstrous levels of their father, they’re clearly fruit of his poisonous tree. A squabble over who’s the rightful owner of an off-the-books property in Aspen leads Carmencita to chipperly proclaim: “I love this kind of jealousy and violence. Irrational behavior like this will lead you to betray one another” (the punchline being, like most of the film’s blistering observations, it flies over the head of its intended target who, still sulking over the condo, grumbles, “I can’t stand injustice”).

The objective with El Conde is to conflate fantastical accounts of, say, “sampling the succulent muscle of a still palpitating heart” with all too real acts of barbarism perpetrated at Pinochet’s behest (“burning women’s breasts with electricity,” for example). The theatrical violations of the natural order are only a slight exaggeration of the chilling reality. It’s all in rather questionable taste, but Larraín’s disgust is palpable, most apparent with the onscreen introduction of our narrator who, the film argues, at minimum gave comfort and aid to a war criminal. Working with Todd Haynes’ regular cinematographer Ed Lachman, Larraín shoots the film in washed-out black-and-white that primarily serves to emphasize the oppressiveness of the setting (the wind-swept exterior shots recall the work of Béla Tarr), but the direction remains, counterintuitively, playful throughout. A ribald flirtation between two senior citizens concludes with the emergence of a previously unseen marching band, appearing in the dining room as if to celebrate the characters for still being hot and heavy for one another after all these years. In another flight of fancy, a character who’s been turned — and there are several before it’s all said and done — experiences their first moments as a vampire with a sort of reckless abandon, spinning about like a leaf floating weightlessly on the air. The bluntness of the film’s message, invariably returning the focus to vulgarity, petulance, and impunity, serves as a guardrail against some of the film’s more diffuse ideas that are introduced far too late in the film to actually register; it’s the sort of film where for the longest time nothing happens, and then suddenly way too much is happening. The film’s outrage may be a little one-note and its prose a bit purple, but some targets need to be hit often, and if a deluge of ornately constructed shit-talk is the price, then so be it. As the film’s coda implies, the next authoritarian is never as far away as you think.

DIRECTOR: Pablo Larraín;  CAST: Jamie Vadell, Gloria Münchmeyer, Alfredo Castro;  DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix;  IN THEATERS/STREAMINGSeptember 8/September 15;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 50 min.