Putting the blackened, flash-frozen heart of Chile’s undead past into a blender, blitzing it to a lumpen pulp and guzzling down the result with grimly comic relish, Pablo Larraín, after his Hollywood forays with “Spencer” and “Jackie,” returns to his home turf and finds it bleeding out from a mysterious two-hole puncture on its neck. “El Conde” — the Chilean director’s uncategorizably bizarre riff on vampire mythos, cronyist corruption and the more mundane horror that is a squabbling family divvying up their patriarchal inheritance while the patriarch is still around — coils itself around an inventively nasty literalization of the idea that the evil that men does lives after them. Those words, spoken over Caesar’s body in “Julius Caesar,” sparked a war that ended a republic. With his iteration, Larraín aims to do his part in delivering a republic instead, bringing his elegantly foul exercise in gallows humor to bear, like obscure long-denied justice, on an arch-criminal who famously evaded the gallows.
Augusto Pinochet died of heart failure at age 91 in December 2006. In DP Ed Lachman’s magnificently eerie black-and-white images, oozing monochrome malevolence, that event is here reimagined as a fake, with Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) actually a 250-year-old vampire playing possum in his glass-topped coffin. We already know that this is at least the second time the Pinochet of Larraín and Guillermo Calderón’s macabre screenplay has attended his own funeral. Back in Revolutionary France, Pinoche, as he was then called, was one of Louis XVI’s soldiers and also faked his own death to evade retributive justice.
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But not before the dashing young vampire had been awoken to his true nature. An early scene of extravagantly graphic violence, as a supernaturally strong Pinoche batters a young woman’s head to gory rubble, is as hard to watch as it is vital to see: a reminder that for all the movie’s arch ironies and its distanced, disdainful tone, its subject was a thug and a murderer, and his victims were made of flesh and bone. After this scene, there can be no redemption for Larraín’s Pinochet, the only question is how much further he can possibly go in describing the General’s depravity — a question promptly answered when Pinoche develops his connoisseur’s palate for different classes of blood by licking the guillotine blade responsible for separating Marie Antoinette’s pretty head from her body.
Over a century later, armed with a burning desire to quash revolutions and stem communism, Pinochet emerges on the other side of the world, in Chile. There, as official history has recorded, he enlists in the army, rises through the ranks and in 1973 mounts the coup that deposes socialist president Salvador Allende. Much of this is due to the Lady Macbeth machinations of his wife Lucía Hiriart (Gloria Münchmeyer) who is described as outdoing even her undead husband in sheer perversity. Together, they have five children (Catalina Guerra, Marcial Tagle, Amparo Noguera, Diego Muñoz, Antonia Zegers), who by the time that Pinochet’s crimes finally seem like they’re going to catch up with him — his financial ones, naturally, rather than his genocidal tendencies and human rights abuses — have grown into spoiled, self-justifying, useless adults. An allegory, perhaps, for those elites who continue to defend the dictator’s legacy, motivated solely by self-interest.
All of this backstory is relayed to us in the plummy British accent of an enormously unreliable narrator, the reveal of whose identity is a mordantly delicious, absurdist twist that works even if you’ve already guessed it from some of her more distinctive phrases. But the real story hasn’t even started yet. Post-death Pinochet is now living out a miserable afterlife in a remote, crumbling Patagonian mansion that is the central masterpiece of Rodrigo Bazaes’ extraordinary production design, a place in which magnificent chandeliers hang over broken floorboards, and Fyodor (Alfredo Castro), Pinochet’s faithful Renfield, moves with soundless malice between the decaying above-ground rooms and a strip-lit basement facility stocked with frozen human hearts.
Holed up in this remote hideaway, with the cavalry horses of Strauss’ Radetzky March prancing all over the crackly classical soundtrack, Pinochet is feeling terribly sorry for himself. He wants, finally, to die. But Lucía has other plans, as do his children who need first to discover where he’s stashed the massive fortune he accrued through his decades of venal rule. To that end, they bring in a glowingly disingenuous exorcist nun (Paula Luchsinger) who passes for an accountant sympathetic to Pinochet’s cause, and whose “strategy is to sow confusion.” If you think that’s weird, just wait until you see her running for her life dressed as Marie Antoinette, lit lovingly to resemble Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. Or until you witness this vehemently bad-tempered movie’s one moment of ecstatic cinematic release, when, for deeply effed-up reasons, she discovers that she can fly.
Anyone who feared this ferociously political director’s deconstructed but still broadly accessible biopics of tragic 20th-century women might have caused him to lose his edge, need not have worried. “El Conde” is all edge and practically no middle — its scrupulous avoidance of anything that might be termed “mainstream appeal” means its single funniest joke might just be the cheerful Netflix logo that plays at its beginning. Similarly, those who might have feared that a black comedy featuring Pinochet as a suicidal vampire would somehow humanize the dictator or lessen the gravity of his reign of terror, can consider those fears quelled by the uncompromising grisliness of both theme and form. If Pinochet is portrayed with tongue in cheek, it’s someone else’s tongue, torn from the mouth of a still-warm corpse.
Nothing about this frequently brilliant but wildly contorted film is easy, neither working through the knotted narrative, nor trying to find a clear moral throughline amidst all the snide and scabrous nihilism. It proves to be something of a Rorschach test in which the ink is black bile dredged up from Chile’s diseased body politic and spat across the screen, the way a “mourner,” early on, spits on Pinochet’s coffin. As a magnificently unlovable art-house object, “El Conde” is perhaps best approached as a challenge: Run the gauntlet if you dare, and if, at the other end, you emerge dazed and disturbed rather than straightforwardly entertained, perhaps those are just the splinters you get when you try to stake a vampire.
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