Audiences seeing Jackie this holiday season (and expecting a History Channel special instead of an ethereal rumination on myth creation) might be shocked to know that they are actually watching director Pablo Larraín’s more conventional movie of the moment.
In a strange, interesting twist of scheduling, Larraín’s severely unconventional biopic Neruda—focusing on the on-the-lam Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) and a hapless detective (Gael Garcia Bernal) perusing him—is also in theaters. And though Jackie and Neruda were made in different languages and have different writers, editors, cinematographers and composers, the two films are undoubtedly limbs from the same creative body.
Larraín, who was born 40 years ago in Chile to right-wing politician parents, is more than mildly obsessed with celebrating lefty cultural heroes. And even for a filmmaker who’s made multiple movies (2010’s Post Mortem and 2012’s No) on the topic of his country’s filthy, verminous onetime dictator Augusto Pinochet, Neruda is a virtual fireworks show about the power of poetry and fame on the world.
And a ravishing experience it is to watch. The film was shot in countless gorgeous locations, with mood and period details echoing no less than The Leopard and The Godfather. As fans of Jackie already know, Larraín adores his Steadicam bobbing through the action like a buoy on a calm sea—and his devotion to that aesthetic in Neruda makes the experience appropriately dreamy and balletic. And yet around the halfway mark, a frustration creeps into the picture.
Like the invented characters played by Billy Crudup and John Hurt in Jackie, Larraín is also fascinated here—practically to the point of exhaustion—by how people invent each other and themselves. This is not a revolutionary concept, but Larraín drills into the idea like a seismologist searching for the center of the Earth, his arms shaking on the jackhammer.
In Neruda, the poet’s wife (Mercedes Morán) tells Garcia Bernal’s detective, “He wrote you as the tragic cop. He wrote me as the absurd woman.” Some audiences will swoon, of course, at the film’s meta-narrative, but for an artist as thrilling as Pablo Neruda—not to mention Pablo Larraín—the highbrow, think-piece treatment offers little workers’ compensation. B