Double Play: Pablo Larraín's unconventional biopics 'Jackie' and 'Neruda' have Oscar buzz

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Director Pablo Larraín was not the only double-dipper at this year’s New York Film Festival—Kristen Stewart had, in fact, three different entries—but the two features he presented there were ones that are now generating a genuine Oscar resonance.

Neruda, his sixth and most recent Chilean film, is representing his country for 2016’s Foreign Language Film Oscar. And, in his first English-language film, he may have steered Natalie Portman to a second Academy Award for her portrayal of Jackie.

Both major cinematic achievements are reaching the starting gate at the same time—in December, weeks apart (“an incredible accident,” he shrugs helplessly), and both—in their own disparate and eccentric fashions—pose as biographies of iconic 20th-century personalities at the time of their most overwhelming trials.

Fox Searchlight’s Jackie replays the worst and most painfully public week in the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—from seeing her husband assassinated beside her in a motorcade, to planning an elaborately fitting funeral, to being evicted from the White House.

The Orchard’s Neruda covers 13 desperate but prolific months in the life of poet-politician Pablo Neruda, on the lam after Communism was suddenly outlawed in Chile in 1948.

The fact that Larraín—freshly turned 40 (and fretting about it)—wasn’t around for either event doesn’t faze or inhibit the director in the least. “I don’t have a patriotic attachment to America—I have it with Chile, with our flag and our history—so, for me, that’s a good thing,” he declares. That kind of distancing enabled him to focus solely on the character. “My whole approach was to [capture] Jackie—through her emotions, through her femininity, through her sensitivity and through her intelligence.”

He came away from the picture with an entirely different perspective than what he had going into it. “Before, I had this idea she was a superficial woman interested in fluff and fashion and dresses, but when I dug a bit deeper, I started to see how sophisticated she was on every level. She was a very educated, complex woman.”

The First Lady’s deportment on Nov. 22, 1963, and the days immediately following, defined a profile in courage—and for anyone who has gone through her ordeal once, it is still difficult to go through it again—but even those most familiar with the facts and empathetic to the situation don’t fully realize what an uphill struggle it was for her. She did not want her husband to go out like Garfield or McKinley (Who?) so, encountering arguments from all sides, she orchestrated a majestic, Lincoln-league exit for JFK that lingers in the memory. Once that was rather magnificently done, she gathered up all her belongings and cleared out for the new White House tenants.

Larraín made sure that all of the above is set down in meticulously reconstructed ’60s mise en scène and that experimental English composer Mica Levi maintains the mournful mood via music consisting mostly of constant surges of anguished strings.

He has no trouble dovetailing into black-and-white when he duplicates Jackie’s TV tour of the White House. The real voice of Charles Collingwood is used, as is JFK’s. (The President, played by lookalike Danish actor Casper Phillipson, is a walk-on.)

Portman’s expert approximation of Jackie’s breathy, baby-doll voice, however, is her own special creation. “One thing about the performance,” Larraín points out, “is the technical aspects of it, which Natalie, of course, handled brilliantly, but what it really cured was the emotional space of what Jackie went through. That was where it was really challenging for her. Natalie was always my first choice for this role. I asked for her and said, with all due respect, if she didn’t do it, I wouldn’t either.”

The film’s verisimilitude of the ’60s and the documentary-like rendering of the facts as we know and remember them are so obsessively dead-on here you don’t notice little fictions being slipped into the film—singularly private moments like Jackie returning from Dallas, washing the blood off her pantyhose and going to bed alone.

“As long as it’s the official reports of what happened, the film is as close to the real thing as I could make it, but no one knows what happened behind closed doors—that’s what the movie does,” Larraín explains. “We bring the camera into a space where nobody knows what happened. It’s not recorded at all, and we throw a fiction over it. What happens behind closed doors is what she’s thinking, and that’s fiction.”

A deeper investigation of Jackie’s shattered psyche on entering widowhood is achieved through the invention of two characters who permit her to vent her true feelings—The Journalist (Billy Crudup), to whom she confesses that her walking behind JFK’s coffin for the Washington funeral march might have been a suicide wish, and The Priest (an excellent John Hurt), to whom she rages against God.

These flights of fiction in order to get to a larger truth are characteristic of Larraín’s other films, but he didn’t hesitate a second when pitched this picture. “Noah [screenwriter Noah Oppenheim] and I had a very interesting collaboration,” the director says. “I had a lot of ideas that he incorporated very well into the screenplay, and he was very generous to do it.”

In marked contrast, the fictions in Neruda are so pronounced that Larraín calls the movie “an anti-biopic.” It is set up as a Les Misérables-like clash of characters. The Jean Valjean here is Neruda, and his flight from political oppression is the fact-based portion of the program. The Javert in dogged pursuit is the fabricated Óscar Peluchonneau, a dim-witted but determined cop out to make a name for himself by capturing a celebrity fugitive. As he tells it (and he’s the film’s narrator), he’s not a supporting character in this story but the hero. And, accordingly, he eventually takes it over and makes it his story. Luis Gnecco and Gael García Bernal, who starred in Larraín’s earlier brush with Oscar, 2012’s No, occupy opposite corners of the film.

“It’s not so much a movie about Neruda as it is about his work,” Larraín admits. “I don’t think you’re going to learn who he really was from this film, but you might learn what he created beyond his poetry. He was one of the greatest poets of our language. He could describe our nation and our culture through poetry. No one had ever done that before. He was very complex. He was an expert on food and wine, a great cook. He was good at orgies. He loved women. He spent many years traveling all over the world. He was a collector of paintings and art. He was a political leader, a senator. He was someone who could have been the President of Chile. That man you’re not going to be able to put in a movie. Forget it. It’s never going to happen.”

Enter Oscar Peluchonneau. “We discovered the policeman in charge was a man named Óscar Peluchonneau, so we decided to use his name. Everything else about him was fictional. We didn’t know anything else about him, and we didn’t want to. Some of the information comes from the papers—like the amount of cops on the case—but his personality, who he really was, that’s not related to the movie at all.

“Basically, what we did was use the cop’s point of view to tell the story. That’s why it’s so hard to describe the film. It’s a movie that has elements of film noir from the ’40s and ’50s, a cat-and-mouse kind of police chase, road movies, some parts of the western and a black comedy. It’s a cocktail—a Nerudian cocktail, as we like to say.”

Off and on, it took Larraín and his screenwriter, Guillermo Calderón, almost five years to get their screenplay camera-ready. Then there was a seven-month delay until his actors were equally camera-ready. Bernal had to finish filming Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire, and Gnecco needed time to put on pounds to play Neruda.

This protracted wait was extremely wearing on Larraín and Calderón. Just to keep their artistic pistons active and firing, they knocked out a different screenplay with Daniel Villalobos called The Club, about a secret “retirement home” for disgraced Catholic priests and nuns, and the film was shot in two weeks. “We did that movie out of desperation, waiting for Neruda,” Larraín confesses, but it won a 2015 Golden Globe nomination as well as the 2015 Grand Jury Award at the Berlin Film Festival.

The head of the Berlin jury was Darren Aronofsky, the American director of Black Swan and The Wrestler. He was so taken with The Club that he invited Larraín to direct Jackie, a film he had planned to direct for his then-wife, Rachel Weitz. That project crumbled with the marriage, but Aronofsky stayed on board as producer.

Nothing was going to deter Larraín from shooting Neruda, however—not even the prospects of a stateside career. But, as soon as his hometurf job was out of the way, rest assured that he went directly into filming Jackie—hence, the aforementioned “incredible accident” which now allows Larraín two potential Oscar contenders.

Should Neruda crack into the 2016 Best Foreign Language Film category, it won’t be the first time that the exiled Chilean poet was in the Oscar race—or the first time he was upstaged by a fictional character. Philippe Noiret played him at a time when he settled briefly on a tiny Italian isle—and then he came in second to the sad sack who delivered his mail. The film was a nominee for 1995’s Best Picture, Il Postino: The Postman.