Reviewed: Pablo Larrain's "No"

An inspiring watch that explores the role advertising played in Chile's progress.

No (15)
dir: Pablo Larrain

How surprising that a film called No should be so positive. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín has been drawn previously to macabre interpretations of his country’s past: Tony Manero used a Saturday Night Fever-obsessed psychopath as a symbol for the pervasive sadism of the Pinochet regime, while Post Mortem concerned a dead-eyed mortician present when the overthrown President Allende arrives on the slab.

Larraín hasn’t left Pinochet behind with No: he is still gnawing away at him, just as Pinochet gnaws away at Chile. But the new picture is energised, its tenor brightened, by the switch of focus from history’s abyss to a clinching moment of hope: the 1988 plebiscite held to establish whether Pinochet would stay or go. Fifteen minutes of daily television airtime was allocated to the regime in the weeks leading up to the vote, another 15 per day to its opponents. No examines how those anti-Pinochet broadcasts challenged a climate of “learned hopelessness,” decisively steering the vote – and Chile’s future.

René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is the hotshot advertising executive recruited to oversee the television spots for the “No” lobby. René’s ex-wife, Veronica (Antonia Zegers), sometimes drops in to see their young son, Simon (Pascal Montero), when she is on her way back from the police station after running carelessly on to yet another police officer’s fist, boot or baton. “Did they hurt you much?” René asks in the manner of someone enquiring about a dull day at the office. Veronica is aghast when she learns he has accepted the “No” commission: doesn’t he see, she reasons, that merely participating will validate the entire fraud? But René has resolve. “We’re going to get rid of Pinochet,” he tells her firmly. Were the film a bigbudget star vehicle gunning for our goosebumps, the line would be pitched at full pelt with orchestral italicising. Here, it is delivered sotto voce so as not to wake Simon as he snoozes on René’s shoulder.

Veronica is not René’s only critic. His boss, Lucho (Alfredo Castro), who is masterminding the “Yes” campaign, tries to lure him away by promising to make him a partner. When bribery fails, the threats begin: phone calls in the early hours, sinister allusions to Simon’s safety, strangers loitering outside René’s window at night. Anyone familiar with Larraín’s previous work may find Lucho’s deviousness obscurely comforting: Castro, a brilliantly cold fish of an actor, played the chilling lead roles in those earlier films and it’s hard to feel all is right with No until you’ve seen him behaving in a weaselly or intimidating fashion.

Castro makes a pointed contrast with García Bernal, who is not just a charismatic actor with his own advertising associations. (He was one of the faces of a recent ad campaign for a facial-hair styling product, the sort of thing that confirms we have too much time on our hands as a race.) He is also a rather delicate soul: he suggests a wee faun, bearded but boyish, a timeless Mr Tumnus.

Bernal’s role in No doesn’t demand any grand, stirring speeches – René’s watchful, low-key confidence is that of a man who knows his power is the backroom kind, exercised in the editing suite or during the shooting of life-affirming vignettes to promote the slogan “Happiness is coming.” René thinks this will be a more effective tactic than dwelling on the executions, the oppression, the legacy of the thousands of people who were “disappeared” under Pinochet. That’s a downer. Upbeat sells.

No is adapted from the play Referendum by Antonio Skármeta (who also wrote the novel that became the 1994 film Il Postino). A more cinematic treatment would be difficult to imagine. Period authenticity extends beyond the dapper ad men’s wardrobes and into the texture of the movie. Larraín shot Noon the U-matic magnetic tape prevalent in the 1980s.

For non-techies such as me this means the film blends seamlessly with archive material from the era, whether it’s news footage of demonstrations or endorsements of democracy from Jane Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss (who played a Pinochet-style dictator and his double in the 1988 comedy Moon Over Parador).

The images look frazzled, as though the stock has been blitzed in one of the newfangled microwaves that René brings home to Simon. Father and son sit mildly dazed in front of the illuminated box as it melts cheese on to floppy bread. No is an inspiring watch. But that doesn’t stop it suggesting that advertising, for all that it was instrumental in Chile’s progress, may be having the same effect on our brains.

A still from "No".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution