Neruda

May 25, 2017
Pablo Neruda, a poet unafraid of eye liner
Pablo Neruda, a poet unafraid of eye liner

Poetry has become a sadly rarefied activity. In the not-so-distant past many people could recite favourite poems at will. Figures such as Byron and Shelley were the pop stars of their age, and continued to exert an influence long after their deaths. In the late 19th century, when Tom Roberts or Charles Conder went out to paint the landscape they would take along a book of verse.

If we discount the aggressive banalities of rap music it’s hard to make a case for poetry’s ongoing cultural vitality. So when I say that Pablo Larraín’s Neruda is not only a film about a poet, but structured like a poem, I’m also issuing a warning. Those who enjoyed Jackie, Larraín’s first and only English-language feature, will find Neruda a very different proposition. It’s not a movie for everyone – some will be bewildered, others simply bored.

There will, however, be a significant number of viewers charmed and seduced by this portrait of a flawed genius. Pablo Neruda (1904-73) was such a remarkable blend of egotism and heroism he almost defies a conventional portrayal. He came across as a lovable old bloke in Michael Radford’s Il Postino (1994), but Larraín gives us a more problematic character.

Although Neruda’s life reads like an adventure tale, animated by a constant outpouring of verse, this movie concentrates on one brief but crucial chapter. The story begins in 1948, when the portly 44-year-old poet, played with great verve by Luis Gnecco, is already a Communist senator in a Chilean government sliding towards dictatorship.

We swiftly realise that Neruda is just as devoted to pleasure as he is to politics. He takes as much delight sucking up the adulation of his fans as he does in baiting his ideological opponents. Asked to recite a poem at a party he chooses one from his most famous book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924) which begins: “Tonight I can write the saddest lines..” Soon the crowd is chanting along with him.

Neruda embraces his dual roles as a living cultural icon and a champion of the people, but lets nothing get in the way of his indulgences. He adores his wife, Delia (Mercedes Morán), but slips away to the brothels to carouse with the whores and cross-dressers. He rails against an uncaring government, but enjoys a lavish version of the bourgeois lifestyle. His revolutionary ideal is “to eat in the bedroom and fornicate in the kitchen.”

When President Videla finally bans the Communist Party, Neruda knows he must go into hiding – even though it’s against his inclinations. This signals the beginning of the great pursuit that will occupy most of the film, as the dandyfied police inspector, Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) is given the task of capturing the elusive poet.

At this point Larraín slips out of conventional narrative and plunges into arthouse mode. Peluchonneau is a fictional character who undertakes his task with great seriousness and maximum incompetance. As a representative of law and order he has something in common with the fantastical detectives and policemen we find in the novels of Roberto Bolaño, Chile’s major contribution to world literature, post-Neruda.

It often seems as if Peluchonneau is more concerned with self-discovery than with apprehending his quarry, approaching his task like a literary critic rather than a cop. Neruda plays along by teasing his pursuer, leaving books for him to find and read. When the inspector finally confronts Delia, whom the poet has abandoned, in an amicable kind of way, she tells the policeman he is only a supporting character created by her husband. It’s a revelation that leaves us just as as confused as Peluchonneau.

As the inspector’s pursuit becomes more desperate and farcical he seems to be working to convince himself that he is more than a figment of Neruda’s imagination. For the viewer the plot moves vertically as well as horizontally, becoming a scattering of episodes and images. The story resembles a mock-epic proceeding by stanzas, as Neruda makes a move, pursued by Peluchonneau, who fails each time to capture him. The two antagonists develop a strange affection, as if the chase is a marvellous game they would hate to relinquish. Or is it just the affection an author feels for his creation, and vice-versa?

Larraín makes no attempt to resolve these questions, and although this is a deliberate tactic it makes demands on the viewer’s patience. Peluchonneau remains a fragile, hollow character from start to finish. The most memorable aspect of the film is the portrayal of Neruda himself – vain, selfish and childish, yet also fearless and inspiring. He was a man whose abstract love of humanity was at odds with the casual cruelty of his private life. He lived as if his actions were part of a novel, dictated by fate rather than his own agency. It’s the Neruda who once described his poetry as an “organism”, a living thing that charts its own wayward course into history.

Neruda
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Written by Guillermo Calderón
Starring Luis Gnecco, Gael García Bernal, Mercedes Morán, Diego Muñoz, Alejandro Goic, Marcelo Alonso
Chile/Argentina/France/Spain/USA, rated MA 15+, 108 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 27 May, 2017