On paper, Pablo Larraín’s El Conde should’ve worked. A satirical comedy on a vampirical Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) seeking death should’ve been a home run. Getting Edward Lachman to photograph your film in black & white is even better, and the movie is one of the most stunning productions of the year. Shots of Pinochet flying down Spain, looking for hearts to devour, are rife with lyrical beauty, even if they contain some of the most senseless violence put to film this year. But it never feels exploitative, always in service of the story and the twisted world Larraín wants to paint.
But why is it so damn boring? Perhaps it’s because Larraín and co-screenwriter Guillermo Calderón have nothing of value to say, and the crux of their satire amounts to “politicians and dictators are vampires.” Thank you very much, Captain Obvious. Perhaps the funniest part of this entire movie is that it’s narrated by none other than the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher (Stella Gonet), who is also a vampire. Yes, the plot gets pretty complicated as it strolls along because Larraín gets lost in how he wants to convey his core message.
At first, Pinochet expressly wants to die. He discusses this extensively with his family, with a straightforward resolve. However, things change when Pinochet meets Carmen (Paula Luchsinger), an “accountant” hired by his family to exorcise the demons from Pinochet’s spirit so he can die peacefully. The biggest problem in Pinochet’s story is that, even if he wants to die, he can’t because he has to feed on blood, which makes him immortal. By having his spirit exorcised, he believes he’ll finally be able to die. But he doesn’t want to die after meeting Carmen, which complicates matters with his family, who think they’ll inherit his money.
Afterward, Margaret Thatcher further complicates matters by revealing a crucial element in Pinochet’s life he didn’t know until now. This part was funny because it was the closest Larraín would ever get to hammering home his “all politicians are vampires” message. At the same time, Thatcher narrates the story and says, “Call me a conservative, but this puerile intimacy shall not be allowed,” regarding Pinochet and Carmen now having a love affair. Gonet is the single aspect that makes Larraín satire feel unique, and she seems more than game in representing Thatcher with the public perception of her character than what she would want to be remembered as.
Vadell is also excellent as Pinochet, though his performance isn’t as focused as Gonet’s portrayal of Thatcher is. But it also represents Larraín’s movie: it’s all over the place. At times, Lachman’s cinematography grips you. It never lets you go, as we get to see the twisted origins of Chile’s most ruthless dictators. Still, it loses itself in unnecessary subplots and character arcs that don’t serve the main plot or the core, meaningless message of his half-baked satire. Larraín has always been a visually averse filmmaker, working with top cinematographers to craft potent images that stick with you long after the film.
However, he’s not a great storyteller, consistently scatter-shooting his tales in meaningless drivel, whether hiding Jackie in unnecessary religious subtexts or diluting the Pinochet satire through endless subplots. Larraín knows how to make images but not how to tell stories. His next film will be about Maria Callas, which has the potential to be as great as Spencer, which benefited from a masterful lead performance from Kristen Stewart to elevate its shoddier material, but could also be in jeopardy with how Larraín decides to tell the story. I guess time will only tell.
Director: Pablo Larraín
Stars: Jaime Vadell, Gloria Münchmeyer, Alfredo Castro, Stella Gonet
Runtime: 110 minutes