By Tanner Tafelski
Pablo Larraín returns to the past. Along with Jackie, Neruda makes a pair of films Larraín made this year that could be considered historical dramas. I haven’t seen Jackie yet, but Neruda demolishes whatever assumptions tied to that label (exposition, a reverence to illustrating facts in the most ho-hum style). This isn’t new for Larraín. Tony Manero (2008), Post Mortem (2010), and No (2012) are a trio of films set in the Pinochet era. The latter film saw him shooting the campaign to vote “No” for the 1988 Augusto Pinochet referendum in U-matic videotape. With Neruda, Larraín is more daring and accomplished and, well, goofier than that film.
Neruda drops you into the life of the famed Chilean poet and senator as he’s about to be impeached as a treasonous communist by the president, Gabriel González Videla. With state orders for his arrest, Neruda becomes an exile protected by a close-knit group of friends and members of the cause. Meanwhile, a voiceover speaks poetically, romantically, and beautifully about Neruda. “He’s the king of love,” the voice says. Soon enough, the voice reveals itself. “This is where I come in,” says Óscar Peluchonneau in voiceover as he materializes onscreen. A dandy with a close cut suit, a snappy fedora, a prim mustache, and a pair of leather gloves, Óscar is the chief of police who will hunt Neruda.
The film move, move, moves. Neruda alternates between the poet and the cop; its synaptic editing crystallizes moments, mainly of Neruda and Óscar walking through hallways, climbing into cars, and shuffling along streets. This is a film of entrances and exits, comings and goings. It is a film that morphs history into a dime store cat-and-mouse chase that ends in the snow-capped Andes.
With a vain leader of the working class and a cultured copper, Neruda bursts with self-conscious self-importance and a puffed up romanticism. It’s hilarious. Adding to this dreamland version of history, Larraín uses rear-projection often when the two protagonists are driving. It’s the best use of the technique since Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter (2015), another Nabokovian self-deconstructing historical drama. In Neruda, the rear-projection not only further enhances the phantasmal atmosphere of the film, but also contributes to the is-he-or-isn’t-he ambiguity surrounding Óscar’s construction as a literary figure, written into being by Neruda. (Let the record stand, Óscar is an actual person who actually tracked Neruda.) Is he filled with ink or blood? Larraín uses Óscar’s existential quandary as a thematic conceit. For Neruda, on the other hand, Larraín portrays him as a shape shifter of identities: the poet, the senator, the comrade, the socialite, the lover. Lorraín makes a mosaic out of Neruda.