Chilean director Pablo Larraín has made the treatment of the great, the famous, and the powerful his topic of preference, eschewing the lower end of the social scale that first made him famous with films such as Tony Manero, Post Mortem and The Club.
Whether it’s Jackie Kennedy surveying the tatters of her fame in Jackie, Princess Diana attempting to exorcise herself of the ghosts of royalty in Spencer, or his underrated portrait of the poet Neruda in the film of the same name, Larraín has often brought in his own perverse vision, as far from the traditional biopic as the north of Chile is to the South. Nothing has quite gone as far as El Conde, however. Told in foggy monochrome, El Conde is about a vampire, a creature of the night who has lived since the turn of the 18th century.
Having witnessed the fall of the ancient regime and the beheading of Marie Antoinette, Pinochet devotes his life to fighting revolutionaries before settling finally in Chile, where he becomes the supreme dictator, Captain General Augusto Pinochet (played with tired gusto by Jaime Vadell). Here he deposes a democratically elected government, suppresses all political freedom, and tortures and kills any who dare oppose him. With his own reckoning on the horizon, Pinochet fakes his own death and retires to a barracks-like building in the purgatorial marshes of the countryside where he lives with his wife Lucia (Gloria Munchmeyer) and steadfast servant Fyodor (Alfredo Garcia). With his ne’er-do-well children on a visit to try to grab at any inheritance that might come their way, ‘the Count’ (as he is nicknamed) is also visited by a nun in disguise (Paula Luchsinger), who is supposed to be looking over the financial records but is preparing something between an exorcism and a more moral calling to account.
This is the kind of pitch that sounded amazing on a Saturday night but woke up on Sunday morning and couldn’t quite deliver. To begin with, Larraín is not the first arthouse director to dabble in genre without much understanding for either the appeal or the power of horror. There are a couple of moments of violence – one gratuitously unnecessary – and a lot of chomping on hearts, but Pinochet-as-vampire never rises above the level of metaphor and not a particularly clever one at that. The rules aren’t clear. Daylight fine, mirrors ditto, holy water also…he has fangs at least and a cape. He can fly; Fyodor is his familiar and a stake would kill him, but given he wants to die there are no stakes.
The general unpleasantness of his family – played for laughs – is the kind of grotesquerie that makes a torturer of thousands look at least like an adult. As Walter Sobchak might admit: “Say what you want about the tenets of fascism dude but at least it was an ideology.” On the other side the nun, who is his only real adversary, is all over the place: wannabe lover, a haircut from Carl Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, accountant, social conscience, and exorcist. She’s not the only thing that’s all over the place. The film can’t fix on a tone, an uneasy blend of fangless satire and flightless horror, by the time the film’s big joke arrives near the end (the identity of a previously unseen narrator), it barely warrants a gasp.
Many might feel this review is somewhat harsh and on a technical level, the film looks the part thanks to Edward Lachman’s cinematography. There are also moments of wit, such as when Pinochet keeps peeking as he lies in state at his own funeral. But as fascism in South America, North America and Europe is rising from the grave, it needs a properly-aimed and delivered stake, rather than complacent sniggering.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty