REVIEW: El Conde (2023, dir. Pablo Larraín)

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 110 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: 8 September 2023 (cinemas) | 15 September 2023 (Netflix)

WHO’S IN EL CONDE?

Jaime Vadell, Gloria Münchmeyer, Alfredo Castro, Paula Luchsinger, Catalina Guerra, Marcial Tagle, Amparo Noguera, Diego Muñoz, Antonia Zegers

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Pablo Larraín (director, writer), Guillermo Calderón (writer), Rocío Jadue and Juan de Dios Larraín (producers), Edward Lachman (cinematographer), Sofía Subercaseaux (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (Vadell) is actually a centuries-old vampire…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON EL CONDE?

A couple of years ago, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín released a fairy tale of Princess Diana’s search for liberation, and a few years before that he depicted former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s grief as an existentialist mood piece. With that in mind, him now deciding to make a gothic horror film wherein Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is actually a centuries-old vampire doesn’t seem like too much of an outlandish venture.

What is surprising about Larraín’s El Conde (English title: The Count) is how much it really embraces its bizarre, undeniably fantastical concept, and plays around with it enough to create a deeply satirical look at fascism and its undying presence in society.

As stated, the central premise of El Conde revolves around the revelation that Pinochet (played here by Jaime Vadell), the army general who in 1973 led a coup d’état that saw him assume power in Chile for over fifteen years, has been around far longer than recorded. In fact, he was alive in France during the ill-fated reign of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, where he served as a royal soldier – and, every now and then, found delicious blood to feast on, for he is also a vampire. The film’s oddly English narrator (whose identity is kept a close secret until a bonkers reveal later on) then goes on to say that Pinoche, as he was known then, fled the country after the French Revolution – taking his beloved queen’s head with him as a keepsake – and made his way to Chile, where history then took its course.

However, instead of dying in 2006, Pinochet goes into exile on a remote, slowly decaying farm estate, where he lives with his long-suffering wife Lucía (Gloria Münchmeyer) and his loyal servant Fyodor (Alfredo Castro), occasionally taking to the Chilean city skyline and preying on helpless victims. At this point in his 250-year existence, Pinochet decides that he is finally ready to die, even though it largely comes from a place of self-pity. First, though, he must face the greed of his adult children, who have arrived to claim their inheritance from their father’s corrupt practises while in office, as well as the mysterious arrival of young accountant Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger) who might also be a nun sent to exorcise the evil vampiric spirit within an already monstrous man.

Far more than he did with Spencer and Jackie previously, Larraín leans heavily into the fantastical with his latest faux-biopic, crafting a love letter to dark vampiric cinema while also laying into the horrors that the real-life and definitely-not-a-vampire-so-chill-out-QAnon-theorists Augusto Pinochet enacted in his life. The film is shot in stark black-and-white, giving it the look and feel of classic Expressionist horrors like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with a constant score of classical music as well as the odd creaky sound effect also complimenting the retro gothic atmosphere that Larraín recreates. This extends into the gore effects, which are often pretty brutal to watch – one moment early on where a head is repeatedly based in is not just gruesome but, thanks to what look to be in-camera effects, impeccably crafted – and in some cases are even accompanied by some sly pitch-black humour, particularly when the English narrator chimes in with their sardonic commentary (again, just wait until you find out who this narrator is).

Larraín and co-writer Guillermo Calderón have a devilish bit of fun playing around with familiar vampire conventions, as does the director with executing them in his own unique style, but it is the real-life context in which their imagined scenario plays out where writers find the deepest, darkest cesspool of horror to exploit for satirical purposes. Throughout the film, Pinochet and those closest to him are alarmingly frank in the roles that they played during the dictator’s murderous and corrupt regime, to where the fact that he’s also a blood-sucking monster who slices people’s throats and cuts out their heart (before then, in a humorous reoccurring sight gag, whirring said heart around in a flimsy blender before drinking it like a smoothie) is only the seventeenth-worst thing about him. The scary aspect, though, comes from the nonchalant nature of everyone who has just accepted, and even embraced, their patriarch’s literally undying authority as their reality, which in light of similarly totalitarian figures and regimes making their own brutal stand in countries around the world, including some of the more democratic societies, is quite the chilling parallel to make.

Despite its grim social commentary, the movie is darkly enjoyable in its execution, as both an amusing satire of fascism and its many monstrosities, and as a moody callback to classic vampire movies. If there is something about it that doesn’t completely work, though, it’s the plotting, as this is the kind of movie that sets up a number of sub-plots alongside the main one, but only follows all the way through with a handful of them. However, even then there are certain plot developments and character motivations that are initially hard to decipher because the script is more concerned with feeding into either its gothic aesthetic or its satirical edge, rather than actually taking time to establish why certain people are acting the way that they are, or what their ultimate goal actually is. By the time that particular things start to become clearer, it’s past the point where you don’t necessarily not care but are still confused by other stuff that narratively doesn’t add up in retrospect.

For the most part, El Conde is certainly another one of Larraín’s fantastical pseudo-biopics, but it is by far the strangest, and possibly even the most original, one of the bunch. Sure, Jackie and Spencer may have been illustrious costume dramas with Oscar-nominated lead performances, but can either of them claim to depict their central figures as blood-sucking, cold-hearted monsters? Actually, for the sake of avoiding waves of misogynous replies, don’t answer that…

SO, TO SUM UP…

El Conde is an original and entertaining horror-satire that plays around with familiar vampire conventions, to where it can be considered a love letter to that type of gothic horror, and takes aim at the monstrous legacy of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet with a sharp commentary on the normalisation of fascism that is, in some aspects, more terrifying than blood-sucking activity.

Click here to stream El Conde on Netflix (available from 15 September)!

Click here for cinema showtimes for El Conde (from 8 September)!

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