'El Conde' Review
September 6, 2023
Whether it’s Jackie Kennedy regaining her composure and building her husband’s legacy after his assassination, Diana Spencer trying to survive a haunted house and its demonic inhabitants over a holiday weekend, or Pablo Neruda being hunted down like a dog, Chilean director Pablo Larraín has repeatedly brought his own unique vision to the biopic genre. His protagonists are not 100% mimicries of their real-life counterparts (that’s not to discredit the outstanding performances of Natalie Portman and Kristen Stewart), instead, they’re distillations of their spirit and persona, allowing room for interpretation and speculation. It’s what makes them feel so real, as they’re not tied to the track of traditional biopic storytelling.
El Conde (translating to “The Count”) is Larraín’s most radical form of interpretation as it theorizes that the person with the darkest heart in all of Chilean history, dictator Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell), actually was a creature of the night. More accurately: a vampire. He was born to unknown parents during the French Revolution, witnessing the beheading of Marie Antoinette and even stealing her disconnected head and keeping it as a trophy all these centuries later. Over time he traveled around the world and rose through the ranks, landing in Chile (“a country without a king” says the mysteriously contemptuous narrator) and enacting a coup d’état. He was eventually thrown out of power, forcing him to fake his death, which sees just as many people salute his casket as those who spit on it. Now he’s a literal walking corpse living in a rickety old compound, one where the wind is always howling and his only company is his idiotic children, bored wife, and loyal butler, all of whom wait impatiently for him to die and bequeath them their inheritance.
Larraín takes the metaphorical violence within Jackie and Spencer and turns it into literal violence in El Conde. As all vampires must do, Pinochet feeds on the living, following a regiment that involves slicing victims’ throats, ripping open their ribcages, and plucking out their still-beating hearts. And then he places those hearts in a blender and drinks every last drop. Still keeping a modicum of a metaphor, these victims are usually the working-class people of Chile, those unlucky enough to be in the path of the charging bull of history. These acts of brutality have an unsubtle and morbid humor to them, with the joke eventually running just as thin as the premise.
Beating that dead horse is the introduction of an outsider to the family, a nun (Paula Luchsinger, sporting a haircut and eyes that make her a dead ringer for Maria Falconetti from The Passion of Joan of Arc) who intends to be a catalyst for the familial backstabbing and drive a literal stake through the heart of the beast. She talks to each of the adult children as if they were toddlers, speaking down to the audience as she recounts the horrible acts the family has committed, including nothing short of murder and corruption. It borderlines on pandering like Adam McKay on his worst day, and becomes quickly redundant as Pinochet literally sucks the blood out of the country.
Cinematographer Edward Lachman, a frequent collaborator with Todd Haynes, breathes the necessary life into the film by draining it of its color. The monochrome black-and-white cast big shadows, with the blood of the innocent painting around those dark corners. A baroque score ties the final knot in the film’s impressive gothic details. This could be considered Larraín’s most impressive production.
El Conde doesn’t have as much bite as its fangs might suggest, but Larraín packs just enough passion and wit into his material to make it pop. He’s just announced his biopic trilogy capper, Maria, starring Angelina Jolie as the famed opera singer Maria Callas. I look forward to seeing the possibility of the heightened nature of this satire melding with his previous work.