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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Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war