The biopic has been a mainstay in cinema for as long as filmmakers have been looking for stories to tell, offering actors the challenge and responsibility of bringing a real person to the big screen. It is a genre unto itself with its own trappings and clichés, which have been effectively parodied in the likes of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
Pablo Larraín’s latest film is, in strictest terms, a biopic of Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda, but that description belies the film and its approach to capturing a person’s life on film. Larraín has enjoyed a steady rise to prominence and acclaim across the world and with Neruda he has developed his capabilities even further to deliver an enigmatic and at times breathtaking challenge to the conventional biopic.
The chase is afoot and Peluchonneau tracks Neruda from town to town, arriving (without failure) just a fraction too late to capture the elusive poet. Peluchonneau never looks comfortable in the real world. As Giselle was thrown out of the fairy tale world in Enchanted, Peluchonneau (very deliberately, it transpires) looks to have walked right out of the world of the cheap, paperback detective novels that Neruda (an avid reader of such novels) leaves behind at each scene to taunt his pursuer.
Knowing very little about the film before watching it, I was caught off guard as the film develops into a playful and faintly farcical detective story but it is entirely by design, amplified by the use of old-fashioned rear projection for the numerous driving scenes. It’s a tone that beguiles and intrigues on a first viewing and should enrich and reward on repeat viewings. Larraín could’ve used a notable mid-film development to mark the shift in tone from serious biopic to the playful fictional world, but that would lessen the impact of the film as a whole.
Cinematographer Sergio Armstrong has regularly worked with Larraín, most recently on The Club. In that film, shafts of white light in the background of shots were dulled, lending the film an appropriately weathered and muted look. In Neruda, the white light dazzles, creating shimmers of reds, blues and purples as it shines through windows and gleams off surfaces, creating a haze that evokes the look of faded film stock from years gone by.
Throughout the film, conversations will flit between different locations in the brief pauses between exchanges. It’s almost as if writer Guillermo Calderón has merged differing accounts of events into one version that captures some essence of the truth without necessarily being factually accurate. It’s an approach not dissimilar to the one taken by Aaron Sorkin with Steve Jobs, where the ultimate aim is leave the viewer with an impression of who the man was.
Peluchonneau closes in on Neruda as he attempts to cross over the Andes Mountains. It’s a spectacular backdrop for a climax befitting of any great detective thriller and also serves to summarise the film’s notion on the interplay between reality and fiction. Whereas Neruda more literally gave life to Peluchonneau, Peluchonneau gives purpose to Neruda; to make him continue to write and to be the voice for the voiceless.