Pablo Lorrain has found a mainstream-independent hit in No, but his two features that immediately precede it – 2008’s Tony Manero and 2010’s Post Mortem – are far less accessible.
While Tony Manero took Saturday Night Fever obsession to graphic, chilling ends (and appropriately – a look back at the Travolta film reveals it to also be a surprisingly dark flick), his two more recent efforts have taken on Chilean politics directly.
Post Mortem is shot in 2.35:1 and the stilted blocking and long, awkward beats remind me of the recent work of Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos. Larrain regular Alfred Castro plays Mario Cornejo, an apolitical morgue worker obsessed with his dancer neighbor who gets caught up in the 1973 revolution. Castro is perfect for the part. His sunken eyes and fallow skin are immediately brooding. He’s intimidating and vulnerable at once.
In Post Mortem Larrain prefers the long take, include a memorable Cask of Amontillado-like ending. He’s also no stranger to static or slightly handheld shots that let actors heads and body parts get cut off rather than move to reframe:
This seems like a pretty obvious distancing technique, but it’s one that works. We actually do ultimately identify with Mario, at least in some ways (very much not so in other ways), but this seems to be Larrain’s way of keeping us at arm’s length regardless.
Like Lanthimos there are some awkwardly funny moments in Post Mortem. This is one of my favorites. Mario finally gets the object of his desire, Nancy (Antonia Zegers) to come over. He cooks her a meager dinner and they sit in silence eating:
Still in silence, she gradually starts to cry. Then…and this is maybe the funniest part of the film…he joins in. It’s actually hard to tell at first if he’s laughing or crying because Larrain keeps his head out of the frame at first, but when he comes back in, it’s apparent:
I like this not only for the (un?) intentional humor, but also because it’s risky. We’re supposed to believe this moment and feel some empathy. She cries for her situation (or to get sympathy) he cries for her (or to be accepted by her). It’s funny, but it’s also oddly human.
Not unlike Tony Manero there’s plenty of odd sexual situations in here. Here’s one of the strangest, where a close 2-shot of a really aggressive hug between Mario and his young typist apprentice –
Cuts directly to a shot of Mario masturbating-
The immediate implication is obvious and disturbing: Mario’s masturbating to the kid he just hugged. Extend that further and you might insinuate something of general loneliness, but here it seems to paint Mario in a wayward, deviant way that’s rather difficult.
Since No is still in theaters I don’t have any stills, but two of the more interesting things about it are its 1.33:1 format, which is in stark contrast to the above aspect ratio, and the fact that it was shot on an old tape format (the Ikegami HL-79E to be exact). The result is a washed out video that feels like home video and is far from the polished-looking 16mm – 35mm blow-up of Post Mortem. Here’s the best image I could find for both aspect ratio and format online:
Still, the medium fits the content: No follows an up-and-coming advertising man Rene (Gael Garcia Bernal, who is really awesome, as always) who leads the “no” side of the campaign in the Yes/No 1988 Chilean referendum in regards to Pinochet’s re-election.
It’s not only the format that’s different here, it’s also Larrain’s technique and storytelling. The director favors rapid time cuts. The beginning, in fact, moves ahead so rapidly from location to location and through time (sentences continuing through the time cut) that it’s almost hard to keep up. The camera moves constantly, has a much looser handheld feel than Post Mortem, and, in part because of the low resolution of the capture format, doesn’t shy away from huge highlight areas and overexposures. Still, No is also a pretty tender narrative, and a somewhat traditional story and protagonist arc. Rene’s relationship with his son and ex-wife is downright textbook.
I like a film that can build suspense even when the ending is known, and that’s exactly what No does. It succeeds by building the interpersonal relationships in a richly textured way, and also with a vast supporting cast, all of whom could be in danger at any time.