On Pablo Larraín’s one-two punch of daring, unorthodox biopics: NERUDA and JACKIE

The auteur theory posits that any film done by a particular filmmaker will always reflect the worldview, interests and creative approach of said filmmaker; any number of separate films will always speak to each other. But to see Neruda and Jackie in short sequence takes that concept one step further: shot in sequence and premiered a few months apart though made in entirely different circumstances with entirely different casts and crews, they are truly sister films, soul mates, two sides of one coin.

These are biopics that push the boundaries of biographical filmmaking almost to breaking point, that refuse the traditional structure and conventions of biopics per se. Neruda floats along in a Ruizian, oneiric mode, Jackie in a fragmented, Aronofskian urgency. Not to say that director Pablo Larraín, a Chilean like Raul Ruiz, whose Jackie is actually produced by Darren Aronosfsky, is aping either of them; just to point out that both are films that follow these directors’ paths in transcending pure realist filmmaking and pushing it into intuitive, impressionistic readings of their subjects’ life and work, using their work and their art in such a way as to understand their life.

Hence, Neruda’s device of seeing the Chilean poet’s exile as a sort of dime-store pulp novel, with a dogged establishment policeman hot on the heels of Pablo Neruda; and Jackie’s use of the celebrated interview Jackie Jennedy gives shortly after her husband’s death as the frame through which we see the first lady’s determined protection of the myth of the White House as Camelot. Both films take creative liberties to break the linear storytelling conventions: Neruda flows and shifts between the poet’s grandly flamboyant gestures of defiance towards the Chilean authorities, Jackie scrambles temporal continuity to become a stream-of-consciousness journey through a set of painful memories.

But if the forms are different, both films expand and extend on the concept of power that Larraín has explored throughout his previous films, and the relation of people to that power — aiding, abetting, fighting, resisting, living. Neruda and Jackie both suggest a director that is not mellowing or accommodating with age, but someone who is consistently asking the viewer to think as he shuffles the formal cards in unexpected ways. These are extraordinarily complex, demanding movies, both taking advantage of the allure of movie stars to sell their unorthodox approach. While Chilean comedian Luis Gnecco plays Neruda (as a buffoonish but conflicted bourgeois), it’s Mexican heart-throb Gael García Bernal, as the career policeman, that anchors the film (in a role that can’t help evoke his military man in Pablo Agüero’s more experimental Eva Doesn’t Sleep); Jackie, Larraín’s first English-language film, has an all-star cast that includes Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup, but at its heart there’s an unrecognisable and eerily picture-perfect (Oscar-nominated) performance from Natalie Portman.

To be sure, neither is a perfect film. Larraín seems a bit lost at times in the mental labyrinths and meta-fictional conceits of Neruda (not even Raul Ruiz could pull his dream-like movies off all the time), though there’s much to be said for his idea of shooting this dark period in Neruda’s life playing up the poet’s self-aggrandising heroics as a projection of his own mind. Jackie is the better achievement; maybe because with Neruda Larraín was too close to the history of Chile that has provided fodder for his previous work, his outsider’s look at Jackie Kennedy’s desire to keep burning the flame of the shining promise Camelot never fulfilled rings clearer and truer (even if Portman’s performance seems to me more concerned with the physical similarities, leaving a big hollow nothingness at its centre, it’s not entirely inappropriate for the film).

More interestingly, though, Neruda looks like a trial run for Jackie, a first attempt at breaking the biopic mold and achieve some sort of ecstatic, impressionistic truth by openly playing up the artificiality and the narrative to the expense of pure realistic verisimilitude. Both are fine works on their own; seen together, they complement and magnify each other.

Directed by Pablo Larraín
Written by Guillermo Calderón
Starring Luis Gnecco, Gael García Bernal and Mercedes Morán
CL/FR/ES/AR/US, 2016, 108 minutes
(Funny Balloons)

Directed by Pablo Larraín
Written by Noah Oppenheim
Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant, Billy Crudup and John Hurt
FR/US/CL/CN, 2016, 100 minutes
(Fox Searchlight/Wild Bunch)


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