Quite a few years ago I now I wrote a review of the novel Interview with the Vampire where I dwelt at length on how it seemed to me to be a heavily metaphorical book about the stereotypical gay lifestyle. I got a response from someone who seemed vaguely surprised by my perspective, indicating he had always just seen it as a book about vampires with no particular subtext to it.
Which led me to ponder: is it actually possible to do a story about vampires without a subtext of some sort? I don't think so, because – brace yourself, readers – I'm pretty sure vampires aren't real, which means when they appear in a story it's as a symbolic or metaphorical representation of something that is. Vampire stories are so enduringly popular because, as a symbol, they are unusually open to different interpretations: you can view Dracula as a novel about Victorian morbidity, about fear of immigration, about all different kinds of sex, and so on, and all of these kind of make sense. Sometimes you have to dig a bit harder than others, that's all.
Not much excavation is required when it comes to Pablo Larrain's El Conde, which is being distributed by the big N currently. Larrain attracted some attention a couple of years ago with Spencer, a somewhat controversial film in which Kristen Stewart played Princess Diana; what rather surprises me is that El Conde hasn't let off a bomb, figuratively speaking, under certain elements of the British media establishment.
The main character of the film is Augusto Pinochet, who for sixteen years was the military dictator of Chile, following a US-backed coup in 1973. For me he always remained a rather vague historical figure until 1998, when he was arrested on a trip to London and put under house arrest in the same affluent suburb where Bruce Forsyth allegedly had a house. The joke at the time was that Pinochet tried to join the same golf course as Brucie but was turned down by the committee due to his unacceptably liberal views. The thing which didn't seem so funny was the way in which the right-wing British press railed against this attempt to bring to justice a man allegedly responsible for thousands of deaths and disappearances and the embezzlement of nearly thirty million dollars, not to mention the sight of a former British prime minister defending Pinochet in parliament.
Compared to all that, El Conde is fairly frivolous, daring to reveal the truth about Pinochet – namely, that he was born Claude Pinoche in France in the 1760s, discovering a taste for human blood shortly before the revolution of 1789 (in one of many striking images, we see the youthful Pinochet licking the guillotine blade after one famous victim has been despatched). The revolution makes Pinoche a staunch anti-revolutionary and he spends the next couple of hundred years fighting the reactionary fight around the world, before settling in Chile and taking the name Augusto Pinochet. Furthermore, the narrator reveals (this is Stella Gonet, though she is, shall we say, doing someone else's voice), Pinochet's supposed death was in fact a deception and the old monster lingers on in quiet seclusion, living on an island with his wife and loyal butler.
Until now, that is, for a string of killings in Santiago suggests that Pinochet's bloodlust has returned, despite all the signs that he has lost the will to live. The family (who are not vampires) assemble, nervous about their ill-gotten legacy, bringing with them a young woman named Carmen (Paula Luchsinger): ostensibly she is there to audit their accounts, but in reality she is an exorcist and vampire-hunter for the Catholic church. Has the time finally come for Pinochet to depart from this world? Or does another gruesome old power have something to say on the topic?
So: definitely a touch of the self-aware art-house about El Conde – nearly all of it is in rather beautiful black-and-white, by the way, and it does look fabulous. The weird thing is that Netflix is listing this as a comedy horror film, which theoretically puts it in the same bracket as Renfield, from earlier this year – but a knockabout parody this is really not. I think you possibly have to be Chilean to fully appreciate where this film is coming from, but by any standard the premise of the film is provocative, to say the least – a black comedy about Augusto Pinochet would probably cross the line for many people, let alone one which depicts him swooping around in a big cloak before slicing people open and popping their still-warm hearts into a food blender. The sheer brio of the thing earns it some points.
Which is not to say that the film disregards Pinochet's actual crimes – it doesn't. There are lengthy sequences in which the family defend their actions, particularly the embezzlement, on drolly spurious grounds – possibly a bit too lengthy, for you quickly get the sense of where the film is coming from. On this case, as I suggested, the subtext is barely concealed – Pinochet was a bloodthirsty monster and he and his family were parasites on the Chilean people. This is all more or less out in the open; the pleasure of the film comes from the way in which it realises and explores this idea.
It's perhaps a touch too long, and there are some plot developments towards the end which seem to have come out of nowhere, but on the whole it's an interesting film, well-made and definitely original. I am genuinely surprised it hasn't attracted more attention here in the UK – though this is mainly because... well, I don't want to spoil the film, but one of Pinochet's staunchest supporters during his enforced stay here was Margaret Thatcher, and this is referenced in the film. Now, it's not all that long since The Iron Lady was being subjected to ferocious, forensic scrutiny by the cult of those still fanatically loyal to Thatch, intent on determining whether or not it was appropriately uncritical and hagiographic about her. I can only assume all of these people have since withered away like David Bowie in The Hunger, for I would have anticipated deafening roars of outrage given any inclusion of the blessed Margaret in a film like this one. (There seems to be something about these South American film directors and Thatcher – there was a horse-riding, cigar-smoking version of her in La Flor, which is actually very restrained compared to what Larrain gets up to here.)
The ideas in El Conde are so bold and provocative that they carry the film a long way, helped by some strong performances and terrific visuals. The actual plot doesn't really do anything particularly interesting, but at the heart of the film is a political statement rather than any kind of coherent story. I enjoyed it a lot, mainly for its impudence: anyone coming from a different place in terms of their outlook on life may find it's an over-the-top joke that wears out its welcome very quickly. But, as I say, I enjoyed it.