Mr.Argaret Thatcher and Augusto Pinochet star as vampires in Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s new film. Literally: El Conde (The Count) drapes them in black cloaks and flies them over the city, biting their victims’ necks and tearing hearts from their chests. Pinochet, in particular, is voracious and insatiable. The monster loves all blood types, Thatcher explains with all the sickening condescension of his race and class. “But naturally English blood is his favourite.”
Larraín – a man in his forties with a lively and combative spirit – has been fascinated by Pinochet for decades. As a child, he watched it on television and felt an instinctive aversion to it. As an adult, he made films about the dictator’s corrosive effect on Chilean culture (Tony Manero), the human cost of military rule (Post-Mortem), and the 1988 referendum that ultimately triggered his downfall ( No). Whether he likes it or not, Larraín and the general are now united at the hip, each defined by the other. So it is with all dark obsessions. The more you say about your topic, the more they say about you.
Pinochet, he admits, is the main fuel in his tank. He can’t imagine what kind of career he would have had if this man hadn’t existed. “But what they say is true: for any form of narrative, there needs to be a crisis, whether it’s Shakespeare or Greek drama, whatever it is. Crisis. It’s a beautiful word,” he smiles.
It’s been barely an hour since the film’s presentation at the Venice Film Festival and Larraín has crossed the lagoon by ferry for a celebratory dinner. He wants a gin and tonic in his hand as soon as the boat docks and a cigarette he can smoke on the restaurant terrace. The man still ignores the excitement of the premiere. Maybe he also needs to acclimatize after another trip in the dark. He claims that all of his previous work has focused on Pinochet’s harmful influence. “This time I think I looked evil in the face.”
El Condé takes the director home after his recent adventures at Sandringham, filming the royal family in his tale Diana, Spencer. It’s wet and exotic – very much in the established vein of Larraín – and takes the form of a fabulous black-and-white creature flick in which the monster (played by veteran actor Jaime Vadell) cheats death and continues to terrorize modern Chile.
This, Larraín jokes, was such an obvious choice that it doesn’t even count as a metaphor. Pinochet expired in 2006 before being brought to justice. There was no accountability, no stake in his heart. A recent poll found that about a third of public opinion still hold him in high esteem, seeing him as a shrewd manager of state finances and a powerful bulwark against socialism, echoing the same old Western argument that funded his plan. The truth, says Larraín, couldn’t be more different. The so-called economic miracle was a lie and the country continues to suffer from it. The vast majority of wealth is in the top 1 percent. The rate of inequality in Chile is among the highest in the world. Perhaps the talks around the 50th anniversary of the coup this week will put an end to this matter. He still has doubts.
The director sips his G&T and watches the sunset. He says it is the poor and uneducated who bear the brunt of the mess, not the educated elite; they are largely free from their homes. “I mean, I was 12 when the referendum took place,” he adds. “And I grew up in a ruling-class family, so I never took any risks. For me, life was easy.
This is undeniably true; he is a child of the regime. Larraín’s father, Hernan, eventually became president of the conservative Independent Democratic Union (although he joined the party in 1991, after Pinochet resigned). His mother, Magdalena, served in the right-wing government of billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera, so I assume his parents were both sympathizers.
Larraín grimaces. He has a second cigarette on the way. “I think my father in particular was a member of a political party that supported him. Today, that is not his opinion. He may have drifted a bit. But my parents are part of a particular class structure. I come from this world myself, so it took me some time to create my own consciousness. But the fact that I come from this world does not mean that I cannot make films of it. »
Clearly, this is a matter of concern to him. Who is qualified to tell which story? Who decides who is worthy in the first place? A few years ago, he says, he was introduced by a reporter from Economist magazine. The writer flew to Venice to interview her at the festival and to New York for a follow-up interview.
“And then this man, this white English gentleman, asks the question: does this man, Pablo, allowed talk about these topics, where does he come from? He sucks on his cigarette. “How can this man say that I am not the right person to photograph these subjects in Chile? I fuck Chilean, man. It’s my world. How can I not be allowed to talk about things that have happened to me as a member of my community?
The nicotine didn’t help; he seethes with rage. He attributes all of this to colonial attitudes, to that inherent, outdated Western mentality. “It’s the same as Thatcher, (Henry) Kissinger, (Richard) Nixon – the way they talked about Chile. Read the transcripts from the tapes, it’s all there. “Oh, just send them some money. They are not smart people. Let them fight each other. You want to know why I put Margaret Thatcher in this movie? One of the reasons is because of this guy. He shakes his head. “It made me understand a lot of things.”
I remind him that this is actually the second time we’ve met. I first interviewed the director 15 years ago, when he came to Cannes with Tony Manero, his devastating black comedy about a zombie fan of Saturday Night Fever. At the time, he had sworn that he would never leave Chile. He has since worked in the US on Kennedy’s drama Jackie, and in the UK on Spencer, a lush gothic fable about Charles and Diana’s broken marriage.
The latter, he explains, gave him a better understanding of the way we live in England. “Dysfunction, complexity, that was what I mainly remembered. It’s a great country, England, with a wonderful culture. But it’s also a land of pirates, full of people who are still in love with the royal family, even the king you have now, who is impossible to understand, he’s such a charmless person.”
In any case, he mostly did Spencer for the benefit of his mother. At the time, Magdalena modeled herself after Diana. Same hairstyle, same outfits, the works. “So she loved the movie,” he says, then stops dead in his tracks and reconsiders. “Maybe she wished it was a little less dark.”
Dinner is served, but Larraín is not ready to change tables. He says he remembers our last meeting and he knows very well what he said. “And I don’t think I betrayed the promises I made, if that’s what you think.” I was lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, New York, wherever. But my kids are in Chile and my bed is in Chile and that’s who I am, I’m a Chilean filmmaker.