No – Pablo Larraín and the question of selling out. (film review)
No is a clever film intended to broaden the discourse on the nature of politics, political advertising and the power of film. Rather than preach, No turns the camera on the audience, involving the viewer in an experience of the very issues called into question. It is not a documentary on The 1988 Pinochet plebiscite. It is a work of art that asks questions about the relationship between cinema / viewer and advertising / viewer.
No was Chile’s successful submission to the 2013 American Academy awards. If the world were a perfect place, Michael Haneke’s Amour would have won best film (and almost every other award it was nominated for) and No would have won best foreign film.
But we don’t live in a perfect world.
This is well summed up in No through the relationship between René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) and his estranged wife Verónica Carvajal (Antonia Zegers) who carry one of the most important questions of the film: how do integrity and advertising live together in the world? René is advertising. Verónica is integrity. You can see how the might have gotten together in university – sharing hash or dope, waxing lyrical about the inner beauty of art as they stare into a perfectly clear star lit night sky but in the real world, where she is allowing herself to be beaten by Pinochet’s police as he looks helplessly on, they have nothing to give each other. This is a mystery to René, a brilliant shallow-thinking nice guy, but it is clear as the frozen sands of a desert night to Verónica who lives by standards even she can only aspire to. When we meet “advertising” and “integrity” they are divorced but still potently attracted to each other. It is only when “advertising” realizes that “integrity” lives with another – who ironically supports his latest ad campaign, that “advertising” is forced into the reality of the separation. In the mind of the advertising executive, there is no reason why this relationship can’t work. In the mind of “Passionate left-wing political demonstrator” it is impossible to understand why it was ever going to work, and even more impossible to understand why the attraction remains.
However, between them there is a child. And who will that child turn out to be?
This is one of the many themes upon which this film hangs. When a group of communists decide they want to oust Pinochet – what they have not thought about (unsurprisingly) is their image. Their very opportunity has come from Western Democratic (read capitalist) nations insisting they be given a chance. Is it a sell out to use a very catchy advertising jingle, a brightly colored rainbow and a feel good image (of people who are too tall to be Chilean and too blonde to be Chilean) to get people to oust Pinochet? Does the end justify the means?.
What those in opposition didn’t realize, is integrity doesn’t sell. It’s an ugly campaign strategy.
René Saavedra is a hybrid character – rich, beautiful and with a good-nature; not at all motivated by the sufferings of those he does not know. Pablo Larrain straddles the remarkably small gap between the men trying to ensure Pinochet loses and the men trying to ensure he wins. For René Saavedra, he will continue to work alongside the head of the “Yes” campaign (played by long time Larrain collaborator Alfredo Castro) because (shrugs shoulders) they were just doing their job. Advertisers can be a little like lawyers in their claim to moral immunity. Buyer beware.
And so the victors are left with an image of a populace grinning at them claiming they promised them smiles and rainbows if they got in. Or so they think at the start of the campaign.
No is the third film in a political trilogy made by Larrain, with a gap of two years between each of the films. The films share the left of center examination of the Pinochet regime, each seeking to shed an alternate light on the period in order to broaden the scope of contemporary discourse. Although the dialogue is tight and witty, the comedy is dark and the examination of media and politics bitter. Larrain doesn’t take sides by any means, nor does he provide answers to the complex questions he raises. Choosing to film with 1980’s video technology gives the viewer access to the time period and allows for seamless splicing of real footage of the time. In addition, the style of camera work allows for the campaign to take some power in the visual narrative. The 2012 viewer is equally as seduced by the jingle, images of tall blond Chileans and superman encouraging us to vote No. It gives the thinking viewer some insight into the power of the advertising, the power of all advertising and the power of cinema in general.
An additional note, No is based on the unpublished play of Antonio Skármeta entitled El Plebiscito.