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.”