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‘El Conde’ Review: Amusing Vampire Satire Flies Too Close To The Sun

Augusto Pinochet, the satirical subject of 'El Conde'
Image courtesy of La Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile (CC BY 3.0 CL Deed)

The central idea posed by El Conde (2023), the latest work by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, reads almost like an insane conspiracy theory from an internet black hole…what if Auguste Pinochet, infamous Chilean general and dictator, was a vampire? It sounds ludicrous, and in truth it very much is, but Larraín’s imagination and the immaculate craftsmanship of his team pull together a humourous and entertainingly silly satire, even if at certain points the film, metaphorically and literally, begins to lose the plot.

The story finds Pinochet, having faked his own death several times, living as a frail old man in the south of Chile. Finding himself out of favour with the world and insulted at his reputation of being a ‘thief’, he endeavours to end his life by refusing to consume blood. However, a string of grisly attacks, leaving victims bloodsucked and mutilated, lead questions to be raised on the legitimacy of Pinochet’s desire to be laid to rest. His children are called to meet their father to discuss the incidents and potential future plans, alongside a nun posing as a helpful accountant’s assistant, her friendly exterior perhaps hiding secrets of her own.

Larraín’s last work, the magnificently crafted Spencer, was a sombre, tight and claustrophobic exploration of the dichotomy of subjugation and rebellion and one of the most unsettlingly brilliant films of 2021. El Conde swings the pendulum completely the other way, going full barrel into sprawling and grisly comic satire, with the tightly stocked and delicate pantries of Sandringham House replaced by blended hearts and pigs’ heads. The cast does a good job of grounding Larraín’s more comedic vision, bringing a sense of believability to what could quickly become ludicrous material. In the wrong hands, the vision of a vampiric dictator would feel much at home with Suella Braverman’s ghostly vampire puppet on Spitting Image. However, Larraín aims for something much higher, creating a perceptively grim and darkly amusing metaphor of a leeching, bloodthirsty dictator who’s claims for peace and mercy ring as hollow as his heart.

Pinochet may claim senility, but behind his eyes is a man desperate to break free and return to his ghoulish ways; depicting this through the guise of a vampire story in which the death of others makes him younger and more alive is a fascinating satirical idea. Also fascinating is the knowledge that Pinochet, while himself monstrous, is just the focal point of a world of conniving, deceitful and merciless sinners. Nearly every character in El Conde is quickly exposed as a hateful plate of narcissism and greed, a fractious family who will willingly exploit each other and play unfairly if it means getting their riches at the end of the rainbow.

One thing that certainly carries over from Larraín’s other work is his eye for detail, helped by the work of an excellent production team. The cinematography, produced in black and white by Edward Lachmann (best know for Carol and Dark Waters), is magnificent, pitching somewhere between the grandiose openness of Bergman and the unsettling intimacy of Ana Lily Amirpour, combining in a beautifully-framed sequence showing a new vampire’s first flight. The production design is traditional but effective, largely demonstrating the same iconography an audience would expect from Universal-monsters cinema, harkening back to the hallowed halls of Dracula’s castle.

It is given just enough of a unique spin, however, to make it seem it’s own beast, best seen in the more modern sheen of the downstairs freezers, where hearts are frozen and consumed. Larraín takes you from traditional architecture to a sterile laboratory in an eerily short time, dragging you into the strange and unsettling with fervour and glee. A central piece of iconography, that being a large gullotine rotting in the courtyard, also plays a vital role, linking Pinochet’s past, present and future in some really interesting ways. The object represents regret, bitterness and a lust for power, which becomes more apparent as the narrative moves forth and we see Pinochet’s truth unfold.

With that said, the film is a step down for the ever-reliable Larraín in the script department. What typically holds Larraín’s unique storytelling approaches together are digestible and simple core narratives that allow for his unconventional stylisations to sing. The problem with El Conde is that the script tries too hard to be sprawling and multi-layered, ultimately suffocating itself by overcomplicating its narrative with too many characters and a lack of focus, particularly in the second act. The first act establishes the initial motivations and backstories of the key narrative figures (particularly El Conde (‘The Count’) himself in a fascinating flashback sequence) before spending the entire second half trying to break it apart. It is a clever idea, but everything happens far too fast and in much too unclear a manner.

There are a number of breakneck interview sequences designed to expose the family’s hypocrisies, but they muddy the waters in an unsatisfying way, with the overabundance of branching subplots, conflicting motivations and excessive backstory making me entirely lose track of the central plot or what I was supposed to be invested in. Character motivations change on a whim, which should feel like inspired satire, but felt instead messy and confused, as though even the director didn’t know where his own story was going. The film gets back on track with a hilarious third-act reveal, shifting the premise back to Pinochet, but by that point it feels more like playing catch-up. The overly complicated narrative drags what could and should have been a simply told, satirical story into a web of branching pathways and allegiances that do not gel together as a whole.

This is an admirable effort from a director who so often hits the money perfectly. He unfortunately has swung so far for the fences here that I think he perhaps overeggs his own pudding, leaving the overall package unfocused. Nevertheless, I had a good time with El Conde, and I suspect that even on the premise alone it will be very hard for people not to get a few chuckles. I do believe the film may be a little inaccessible for those unaware of the full details of Pinochet’s life, but I think the satire shines through just enough to be digestible, if not always comfortably so. El Conde is beautifully crafted in its visual style and deeply ambitious, but is frustratingly let down by a confusing and meandering second act that lacks the required bite to form a fully satisfying final dish.

El Conde premiered on Netflix on 15th September.


Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor


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