‘Neruda’ Is Part Prestige Biopic, Part Wes Andersonian Oddball Lark

With Jackie and now Neruda, director Pablo Larraín has managed the impressive feat of having two biopics hit theaters within weeks of each other. A director competing against himself seems like curious economics, though it makes (some) sense in that both films are being pitched as awards contenders. And December, so the thinking goes, is awards season. While Fox Searchlight pushes Jackie for a handful of awards including Best Actress and Best Picture, The Orchard is hoping Neruda will contend for a Best Foreign Language Film. Will it be too much prestige for one man to contain?!

But enough about the awards season horse race, which is almost as nauseating as the political version and twice as esoteric. It pleases me to report that neither Neruda nor Jackie is the predictable glamour porn the prestige picture marketing machine might lead one to believe. Both films share a commitment to the sumptuous visual, sure, and neither exactly questions the mythology of its subject. (In both cases, in fact, the “Great Man” theory of biopics is the one stone left notably unturned.) But neither offers the reductive, predictable myth-making we’ve come to expect from this kind of film. In fact, they’re almost as different from each other as they are from the norm.

Larraín can clearly shoot a hell of a scene, and both films maintain a high degree of compositional competence, visually. Narratively, they’re largely opposites. Where Jackie is concrete, specific, and fact-y, Neruda attempts to capture its subject through parable, euphemism, and extended metaphor. If that doesn’t make it the less successful film, it’s certainly the more elusive one. Whereas Jackie, with its hyperfocus and clear thesis, is heavy and hammering, to the point of being oppressive, Neruda is so light that it’s constantly floating away.

Scripted by playwright Guillermo Calderón, Neruda stars Luis Gnecco as the famed Chilean poet (who was also a senator, which I never knew), and it’s hard to tell exactly what Larraín wants us to know about him. Neruda isn’t even really the main character. In this fact-based tale of a famous writer, the narration is provided by a character who is neither a writer nor a real person — Gael Garcia Bernal’s Oscar Peluchonneau (a wonderfully sonorous name to just invent out of thin air), a bumbling functionary, a sort of autocratic Don Quixote, who’s been sent to catch the famous communist Neruda by the right-wing Chilean government, which publicly smears Neruda as a criminal and traitor.

Peluchonneau, the bastard son of a prostitute, likes to claim the founder of the Chilean police department as his father (on dubious evidence), and has a big boner for his own grandiosity, and maybe for Neruda himself. Does the tormented policeman want to catch Neruda or have sex with him? Maybe that’s why he’s wound so tight. By contrast, Pablo Neruda cavorts with transvestites and kisses drag queens on the mouth, and seems fairly at peace with the world. How much to read into all this, I’m not exactly sure. It does seem a smidge Aaron Sorkin/Oliver Stone-ian to blame authoritarianism on daddy issues and latent homosexuality, but Neruda is so elliptical that you’re never quite sure that that’s what Larraín is even doing.

As Mercedes Morán, playing Neruda’s second wife Delia, taunts Peluchonneau, “All detectives are in love, and every detective story has a bed.”

Huh, well that settles it. I’m not sure what the hell that means, but it sounds good enough, which is a microcosm of the movie. Bernal plays Peluchonneau as a pompous parody of Humphrey Bogart. With his fedora, John Waters mustache and collection of sample-sized double breasted suits, Peluchonneau has the impotent vanity of a Jason Schwartzman character and the sight gag value of a Wes Anderson character, particularly when he shows up in a motorcycle sidecar dressed in pilot’s goggles and a dildo helmet. I don’t know exactly what he’s supposed to mean or why we’re supposed to care (and clearly he’s meant to mean something), but if there’s one trenchant commentary in Neruda it’s that creeping fascism tends to feel like farce right up until the point where they’re lining you up against a wall.

The biggest drawback of Neruda is that, well, I still don’t know much about Pablo Neruda, this romantic, Great Man cross between Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. Friend of the poor, sensual epicurean, brave political figure, beloved poet — Neruda makes little attempt to go beyond poster tagline sloganeering, and to its credit doesn’t really pretend to. People love his words, he gives a homeless girl his coat, etc… Rather than dig beneath Neruda’s surface for the “truth” or for additional layers, Neruda gleefuly dances around the edges. The best I can tell, Neruda is trying to depict its subject as a kind of good-hearted, impossible-to-pin-down bullshitter on behalf of the good. And the film mirrors him in that way, where Larraín and his screenwriter Guillermo Calderón’s micro cleverness, their facility with nuanced language and sexy visual, allows them to keep you on the hook even when they may have lost the plot a little in a macro sense.

There’s a lengthy interlude where Delia threatens, and the movie seems to confirm, the idea that Peluchonneau is just a character in a book that Neruda is writing. Which is… cute? Clever-ish? Artistically put together? But also… huh? What does that tell me about anything? Neruda has one of those endings eloquent enough that it will make you forgive a lot of the drags and digressions that came before — Tenenbaumsing I like to think of it — but it doesn’t quite pull off the magic trick it needs to. Neruda doesn’t lack for style and beauty, the trouble is that most of its (ample) cleverness is deflectionary and elliptical rather than illuminating or insightful. It too often gets caught up in the poetry of pushing us away.

In the US, Neruda hits limited theaters December 16th.