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el conde netflix.jpeg

Pablo Larraín's 'El Conde' Is a Magnificently Black-Hearted Little Wonder of a Thing

By Jason Adams | Film | September 16, 2023 |

By Jason Adams | Film | September 16, 2023 |

el conde netflix.jpeg

To quote Margaret White, the mother in Carrie brought to most ecstatic life by Piper Laurie in Brian De Palma’s classic 1976 Stephen King adaptation, “Sin never dies. Sin never dies.” And to now take that truism a couple of steps further—according to director Pablo Larraín’s 2023 destined-to-be-cult-classic El Conde (The Count), what Sin does instead of dying is this: it fakes its own death, it shuffles off to a remote manor in the Chilean wilderness, and it makes smoothies from human hearts in order to age itself down and start its entire cycle of violence and horror and fascism anew. Gangbusters, I tell ya. Works every time.

A vampire movie that imagines the real-life dictator Augusto Pinochet, who brutalized Chile for three decades until his death in 1993—or excuse me, his “death, wink wink”—as a literal bloodsucker hundreds of years old, El Conde might at first seem an odd fit for Larraín, who’s spent the past few years making lavish famous lady biopics. There was Jackie in 2016 and Spencer in 2021, and next up he’s got Angelina Jolie starring in Maria, about the opera singer Maria Callas. But Larraín seems less an odd fit if you look at his previous work—he’s already made a trilogy of films that dealt with Pinochet’s rule in 2008’s Tony Manero, 2010’s Post Mortem, and the fabulous No in 2012 with Gael Garcia Bernal.

But a political vampire movie from him seems even less of a stretch when you zoom closer in on Spencer, his immediately previous film, a transfixing Princess Diana biopic with a never-better Kristen Stewart swallowing her pearls. Did he not turn Di’s claustrophobic tale into a straight-up ghost story, with a rural gothic manor beset by fog and phantoms?

Anyway the metaphor of Pinochet as an ancient parasitic ghoul is hardly a big stretch as it is, and Larraín has a blast here going big with it. For a film that’s deeply furious about the horrors that fascism can bear down upon people, El Conde is wildly funny in between its bouts of face-smashings—it’s its own kind of spin on Bunuel’s surrealist dinner party gags (seen in films like The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie); one platter is stacked with wrath, while the other’s full up with goofballs. When in a flashback Baby Pinochet starts licking the blood off the guillotine that just sliced off Marie Antoinette’s head—which is the cinematic image of the year for me at this point—what can we do but chortle?

Shot in a luminous silver-flecked black-and-white by genius cinematographer Ed Lachman (The Virgin Suicides, Far From Heaven), El Conde also feels to me like an ever-so-slight parodic rebuke of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which it resembles so thoroughly in its visuals at times that I couldn’t help but link the two. Cuarón was taken to task by some for having some blinders on with regard to his fictionalized telling of the story of his childhood maid and her place in his upper-class Mexican family’s life and home. But there are no such blinders on anybody in El Conde, a brutal evisceration of the powers that be, the powers that beat down, the powers that suck dry, stomp flat, and move on fresh as daisies to the next ruination.

Set in the current day, El Conde sees Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) beckoning his exhausted and awful gang of children out to his nowhere homestead where he’s been in hiding since his “death” in 1993, cloistered off from the world with his also-awful wife Lucia (Gloria Münchmeyer) and his possibly-awfuler servant (Alfredo Castro). In the middle of a hissyfit he’s throwing because history hasn’t been kind to his rule, the Count (as he demands being called) says he’s over it and fully ready to die properly—he’s stopped drinking his heart smoothies altogether dammit, and he looks it. And his children, an indistinguishable pack of wolves who know their father’s a vampire but couldn’t care less as long as they can continue feeding the last drops of power and money off his wizened teat, come a’running in hopes that he’ll tell them where the hidden bank accounts are.

But wait, there is one more on this journey down the river unto the heart of Chilean darkness. Tagging along in disguise as one of the daughter’s accountants, there is Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger), an alabaster-skinned swan-necked beauty who also just happens to be a half-crazed nun sent by the Catholic Church to finally plunge a stake into the withered husk of El Presidente Nogoodnik once and for all.

Motives will clash and bodies be bitten, and that guillotine sitting prominently out in the middle of the yard will be put to some use, rest assured. And as a renewed vigor begins to permeate his old bones, Pinochet, a black speck in the night sky, will once again start sailing over cities like the worst sort of Batman, seeking out the blood of the working class to spill and suckle. Described in voiceover as a “plebeian bouquet” he personally prefers the fo-fum refined blood of an Englishman—I mean, who doesn’t? But Pinochet will work with what is on tap. That’s what’s kept the gravy train going all these centuries.

But while Pinochet might be the one with blood on his fangs, it’s really Larraín we need to watch out for—no corner is safe from his lacerating satirical wrath. If, for example, you think that Carmencita is our Van-Helsing-esque heroine, a South American spin on Dolly Wells’ amusingly camp turn as a vampire slayer under the habit in Steven Moffat’s 2020 Dracula miniseries opposite Claes Bang, you need to think again. Pay closer attention to her wild eyes, her sweaty forehead. Not to mention the Spanish-speaking world’s longstanding irreverence towards all things devotional (which is to say that she felt positively Almodóvarian to me).

And don’t get me started on the dulcet tones of the film’s narrator. If it sounds to you like who you think it is, you might be onto something. But Larraín is gonna carry it ten vampire leaps further, have no fear. That’s the dark fun of El Conde, a magnificently black-hearted little wonder of a thing, bounding here and there on beautiful music while leaving a trail of mutilated corpses in its wake. It’s much like politics in that way.