Sitting there in the pedestrian Netflix lineup of movies right now is an astonishing satirical black-and-white farce about an age-old vampire who just happens to be Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell). In this exceptional new film by Pablo Larraín (Spencer, Jackie, No), the conceit is that Pinochet faked his own death in 2006 (the year he perished in real life, at the age of ninety-one). He’s retired to a remote country estate in Chile where, surrounded by his wife (Gloria Münchmeyer) and his crass children who are eagerly looking forward to inheriting his ill-gotten gains, he claims to be prepared to die at last. He’s even stopped eating his favorite food: smoothies made from human hearts ripped out of his victims’ bodies.
But old vampires never die; they just rejuvenate and start their reign of terror all over again. Pinochet is revealed to have been stopping human progress and killing working-class dissidents since he fought on the wrong side of the French Revolution as royalist soldier Claude Pinoche. (Pinochet, in real life, was of French descent on his father’s side and preferred to be called El Conde, “The Count.”) Claude witnesses the death of Marie Antoinette, reverently saving her head for posterity. Then he licks her blood off the guillotine blade. Waste not, want not!
The narrator of the film isn’t divulged till near the end, when she flies to Pinochet’s rescue, but you might recognize the plummy upper-class British tones singing his praises as a great world leader. Her appearance as a bouffant-wearing, purse-clutching vampire is one of the great characterizations in recent film history.
Pinochet is seemingly well guarded by his butler Fyodor, a White Russian always bragging about all the communists he’s killed. But a threat to Pinochet seems to come from an unlikely antagonist — a young nun named Carmen (Paula Luchsinger). She’s tasked by the Catholic Church with documenting Pinochet’s crimes, not just the capture and torture and “disappearing” of thousands of Chilean dissidents, but the tracking of his embezzlements and other corrupt profits in dozens of bank accounts and caches all over the country. After compiling the evidence, she’s supposed to exorcise him, on the dim chance of saving what remains of his soul. It’ll probably come down to a stake-through-the-heart killing, but the Catholic Church never was squeamish about that sort of thing.
Pinochet’s children are only too happy to receive as an honored guest this highly educated “accountant,” who promises to locate all the money and property they hope to inherit. She’s an odd young woman, impressive and beautiful at one moment, gawky and off-putting the next, and playing her, Paula Luchsinger is getting rave notices all over the place. She wears — and deserves to wear — the iconic, close-cropped haircut reminiscent of Joan of Arc as depicted by Renée Falconetti in the extraordinary silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer.
El Conde contains several references to landmark old films, including the horror classics Nosferatu (1922), directed by F. W. Murnau, and Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932). There’s an overt citation to Vampyr that recalls the terrifying funeral scene in that film hallucinated by the protagonist, who dreams of being paralyzed but alive in his own coffin, seeing the old woman vampire look down on him through the little window. In El Conde, it’s Pinochet’s funeral when the crafty old bloodsucker lies feigning death in a coffin with a small square window over his face, presumably so the Chilean citizenry can take a last loving view of him as he lies in state. His eyelids open slightly at one point, almost giving the game away, and one citizen, not feeling so loving, spits on the glass.
It’s pretty audacious for a contemporary filmmaker to cite historic masterpieces like that, inviting comparisons, but the stunning effects of Larrain’s black-and-white cinematography inspire respect for his choices. His cinematographer is Edward Lachman (Dark Waters, Carol, I’m Not There, Far From Heaven, Erin Brockovich, The Limey, The Virgin Suicides), a master who is Todd Haynes’s favorite director of photography and accustomed to working with a variety of risk-taking filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh and Todd Solondz.
Lachman proudly attests to the boldness of technical imagination that went into this film, which includes shooting in black and white instead of the usual move of shooting in color and transferring to black and white. They also filmed in large-frame format at a two-to-one aspect ratio. Massive, high-ceilinged sets were built for the film, including much use of a fifteen-foot Technocrane. All of this expansiveness, in Lachman’s view,
captures the decadence of this world, the decadence of someone that [has chosen] to be ignored by reality, to be ignored by the past. It becomes an extension of the character, a psychological extension.
The wire-flying shots of the vampires taking wing are both awesome and darkly funny, redolent of flying shots of Batman and Superman. Probably the most mesmerizing and sublime shots in the film are of the fledgling flight of Carmen the nun, when she’s turned into a vampire. Her clumsy struggle to balance on the wind, gradually smoothing out into ecstatic flight, is a marvelous way to convey the eternal advantage of the vampire as well as the more ordinary human despotic ruler — both can offer immediate, overwhelming sensory rewards in the form of opulent luxury and elevation over the suffering crowd. From the vampire comes immortality, superhuman strength, and mesmeric power, as well as the aristocratic sense of self that makes clear what the vampire as a monster was always about anyway — the supposedly “noble” but actually barbaric ruling class preying on the people.
Despite the critical attitudes Larrain expresses in his several films dealing with Pinochet’s dictatorship, he’s a controversial figure in Chile due to his affluent background as the son of right-wing government officials:
His father was the president of one of Chile’s main right-wing parties, which supported the dictatorship. His mother served as a cabinet minister in Chile’s conservative government. She is a Matte, one of Chile’s wealthiest families, which has been accused of driving out Mapuche Indigenous people from their lands. Left-wing Chileans have questioned whether Larraín is the right person to tell these stories, arguing that his family was insulated from the effects of the dictatorship.
Growing up “protected” from the dangers of dictatorship, Larrain was twelve when Pinochet faced the 1988 voter referendum that eventually removed him from power. His class-conscious politics developed in opposition to his parents’ through his teen and young adult years.
Larrain has already made a loose film trilogy about the Pinochet dictatorship, comprised of Tony Manero (2008), Post Mortem (2010), and No (2012). He made El Conde with the idea of a release coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup, ousting democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende with the support of the United States. Larrain is on record as feeling a certain despair on the anniversary:
It was an odd day. . . . I might have been naive, but I think many of us thought that a national agreement that something like this should never happen again could be [instilled] in the vast majority. That did not happen.
The recent statistics on government representatives and popular responses are damning:
Pinochet’s legacy still pervades Chile. Right-wing opposition leaders in the Chilean government did not participate in official events to commemorate the violent coup and ensuing deaths, and earlier this month, they refused to sign a commitment to democracy. More than a third of Chileans think that the coup was justified and 20% see Pinochet as one of the best rulers of 20th-century Chile.
Larrain says his resistance to making a more typical biopic approach to Pinochet’s life was out of a fear of accidentally creating empathy for him, “which would be very dangerous.” He elected to create “a satire, a farce” in the sometimes ridiculously gory, but always incongruously beautiful, horror comedy. As with almost all of Larrain’s films, part of the pleasure of watching them is adjusting to the bracing uniqueness of the approach to a famous subject.
There’s nothing else like this on Netflix, that’s for sure.