‘Jackie’ director Pablo Larraín: “Cinema is always a political act”

Oscar-nominated and accepted by Hollywood, Chile's cult filmmaker is still fighting for the little guy – one movie at a time

Pablo Larraín might love making films about loose morals and dodgy decisions, but in his own life, he is a man of unflinching principle. “You can’t walk away from politics,” says the left-leaning Chilean director, who’s twice been Oscar-nominated for his arthouse dramas about creepy poets, pedophile priests and brash, young politicians. “You can’t ignore it. And if you do, you are likely to pay a very big price, both in your [personal] life and in your role as a member of society.”

Talking to NME from his home in Santiago, Chile, Larraín is adhering to the partial-lockdown rules imposed on his hometown, holed up with his wife Antonia and two children, Juana and Pascual. It’s been four years since his big industry breakout – 2016’s Jackie, starring Natalie Portman in one of her most iconic roles – but he’s not had a film out since. The acclaimed biopic of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy is Larraín’s only foray into filmmaking outside of his home country, where he’d made a series of politically-charged features like Neruda, The Club and Tony Manero. Given our recent period of social unrest – Chile has seen mass protests and Donald J. Trump looms large – you’d expect Larraín’s latest movie to be filled with his trademark insight, but if anything, arthouse horror Ema is his least political yet.

“You can’t walk away from politics”

“I think cinema is always a political act,” says Larraín, when we ask why Ema doesn’t openly clap back at right-wingers. “Sometimes, you want to deliver a message that is political but is very well hidden.”

Set in modern day Chile, Ema is nearly as cryptic as its creator. In typical Larraín fashion, the plot shifts between the past and present, forming a dual narrative which eventually meets in the middle. It centres on its titular protagonist, a 20-something dancer (played by Mariana Di Girolamo) who likes to set fire to things with a homemade flamethrower. When we first meet her, it’s clear she’s had a bad time of it. Her adoptive son, Polo, accidentally caused a blaze that gave Ema’s sister life-changing injuries. Now, after sending Polo back to the orphanage, she and her temperamental choreographer husband Gaston (Gael García Bernal) are at breaking point after a series of nasty arguments.

Pablo Larrain
Mariana Di Girolamo as the titular protagonist in ‘Ema’. Credit: MUBI

Part visceral domestic drama, part erotic reggaeton musical, Ema defies all expectations. It’s racked up awards on the festival circuit already and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bad review online, but if you like your films simple and non-freaky then keep moving. This is definitely not for you.

“[Ema] is like a labyrinth where you don’t exactly understand everything,” says Larraín of his surrealist fever dream. “But it’s hypnotic somehow, so you follow it without really understanding, and you get to connect the dots [by the end]. And when you do, when you get to know what it is, what you saw, what they were doing, the movie opens up and restarts again. I like to have the audience processing the movie at the same time as the filmmaker.”

Pablo Larrain
Credit: Getty

Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1976, Larraín’s background is remarkably bourgeois for a filmmaker with such liberal tendencies. He’s the son of conservative politicians Magdalena Matte and Hernán Larraín, who is the current Minister of Justice in a government that just tried to sneak convicted human rights abusers out of prison. For a young boy growing up in the time of Augusto Pinochet, it was inevitable that Larraín’s work would reflect his experience of living under a dictator who tortured and murdered his opponents.

After studying film at a nearby university, the fledgling filmmaker started up his own production company, Fabula, in 2003, with the intention of making shorts and adverts while also helping to produce small budget projects for up-and-coming artists. Within three years, he had made his debut feature – Fuga, about a classical composer who goes insane.

‘Ema’ follows a couple dealing with the aftermath of an adoption gone wrong. Credit: MUBI

For the next decade of his career, Larraín’s films were told exclusively via some form of political narrative. First, there was Tony Manero, a 2008 black comedy about a Saturday Night Fever superfan. It consciously held a mirror up to Lorrain’s home country, where Pinochet was installed by the USA around the time that John Travolta’s dark, disco epic hit cinemas.

2010’s Post Mortem followed, focussing on Mario, a coroner’s assistant who is searching for his lost love in the time of Pinochet’s installation circa 1973, while being pressured to hide the truth behind the bodies piling up in his morgue. Two years later, the so-called ‘Pinochet Trilogy’ was wrapped up with No, a film about an advertising executive – played by Ema’s Gael García Bernal – who helped oust Pinochet’s government in the late ‘80s. No earned Larraín his first Oscar nomination, offering him a chance to leave Chile and work on a bigger stage.

“You can’t divide the film world into Hollywood and everywhere else”

Enter Jackie, in which Larraín told the story of JFK’s widow in the days after the infamous 1963 assassination. With a script he didn’t write and star names across the board, including Portman, John Hurt and Billy Crudup, Jackie was more accessible than his previous work, yet still featured some of Larraín’s indie sensibilities, not least a fractured narrative that flitted between three periods of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life.

Jackie garnered dozens of awards, largely for Portman’s performance and the film’s costume design, but still gave Larraín his first proper taste of international success. It might seem as though this is a director who has graduated to Hollywood after finding success in his small-time home, but Larraín bristles at the idea.

Natalie Portman as former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in ‘Jackie’. Credit: Alamy

“You can’t divide the film world into Hollywood and everywhere else,” he says. “Jackie was a movie made in France, was financed mostly by the French, and then eventually the US got involved. So it was a movie that was made for Hollywood. I wouldn’t call it a Hollywood movie.”

While his trip to Tinseltown was evidently fruitful, Larraín has gone back to his roots with Ema. But this is no retreat from the bright lights by a director who’s had his fingers burned. On the contrary, Larraín’s latest stretched his abilities more than they’ve ever been. In fact, an initial screening for the film’s backers was met with shock and bafflement on all sides. No one knew what the hell they’d just watched.

Portman was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in ‘Jackie’. Credit: Alamy

“We were really confident of the narrative, and we invited friends, film directors, editors,” says Larraín. “They walked out of the screening room, very close people that I love, and said: ‘We don’t understand anything!’”

Naturally, it was back to the drawing board, explains Larraín. “I realised it was too complex. We had to make things a little bit more transparent,” he says. “The audience needed to be able to follow it [more easily], without betraying the nature of the movie.”

It’s a recurring theme in Larraín’s career, that unwillingness to make life easy for the viewers. To test their ability to understand what’s in front of them. “I trust their intelligence,” he says. “And I also like to believe that if there are ways to leave a movie open [to interpretation], then it’s the audience who will ultimately complete what they saw for themselves.”

‘Ema’ hits streaming service MUBI on May 1. Credit: MUBI

Speaking from the COVID-19-induced quarantine of his home via Zoom, Larraín is keen to promote a movie he wasn’t sure would ever see the light of day. However, he seems oddly frustrated that he has to. Whether it’s the confines of a hotel suite or the confines of one’s own home, it seems the movie promotional circuit is gruelling whatever the environment.

“I’m not the kind of filmmaker that enjoys having his movie in the closet,” he says, with a typically poetic turn of phrase. “The movie was going to be in cinemas, and then to streaming platforms, but since the reality isn’t great for cinema right now, it went straight to streaming. But that’s fine. I’m excited to see what the reaction is.”

If he’s not entirely convincing, it’s understandable. Few directors would be happy to skip the theatrical stage of the release cycle, even if it means a bigger audience. “When I grew up, cinema was where the great things were,” says Larraín. “TV had some good stuff, but the shows that had high ratings were usually soap operas, which I didn’t like. With the streaming system, you know the movie will eventually find its audience, which is great news for filmmakers.”

Now that Ema is finally out of the door, Larraín is starting to embrace Hollywood. His next task is to direct all eight episodes of an Apple TV+ show based on Stephen King’s novel, Lisey’s Story. Produced by J. J. Abrams from scripts adapted by King himself, it doesn’t get more A-list than that.

“I’ve been involved with movies where I was going to be a soldier in an army – I don’t want to do that”

“It is more Hollywood-like,” admits Larraín. “I’ve been involved with movies that never got made because I realised that they were never going to be mine. I was going to be a soldier in an army, which is totally fine – and there are some of those movies that I like – but I don’t want to do that.

“I don’t need to have all the control,” he adds quickly. “But as long as certain sensibilities are being understood and respected by the people I am working with, and I also respect their sensibilities, I think it’s possible to make movies any way, anywhere.”

Stephen King is Larraín’s latest collaborator. Credit: VPA/AKM-GSI

Unfortunately, Larraín isn’t going to be making anything for a while. Like everybody else, he is locked up at home, seeking solace in entertainment while he works on his own stories. Weirdly, he says he has a new-found penchant for vampire movies, based on the connection he sees between Dracula and the coronavirus (“Dracula would bring the infection with him!”).

NME points out that there’s a scene in Ema that’s remarkably reminiscent of the bloodthirsty villain – when Ema’s dance troupe seduce an up-tight lawyer. It’s one of the few times we see his eyes light up.

“‘Tiger king’ confirms the United States is unfixable”

“I never thought of it like that,” he says. “That’s a beautiful idea actually, they all behave like vampires. Necks are a sensual part of contact and kissing. I thought it was beautiful but I never linked it to vampires!”

It’s not just vampire fiction that Larraín has whiled away the hours with. He’s jumped on the Tiger King bandwagon (“it confirms the United States is unfixable”) while enjoying Amazon Prime’s Tales From The Loop (“It’s very interesting!”).

Mariana Di Girolamo as titular character Ema. Credit: MUBI

Next up for Larraín is The True American, in pre-production before coronavirus shut it down. Based on the book of the same name, the upcoming drama tells the true story of a Bangladeshi Air Force officer shot in the face by a self-styled American terrorist in the wake of 9/11. It’s a story of forgiveness and compassion, underpinned by an atmosphere of uncertainty. It’s right up Larraín’s street, looking back on political and social issues that can and will inform the present.

“There’s a disaster, in my opinion, in terms of politics right now,” he says. “A lack of political awareness that has led the world to have leaders like we have in many countries. There are people that got there because we didn’t pay attention… I believe my role is to make movies that are political. I do seriously believe that if you walk away from a political concept or idea, in whatever you’re doing, you’re probably making a very, very big mistake.” For Larraín, as he’s made very clear, that’s not an option.

A free virtual preview of ‘Ema’ is available to watch on MUBI for 24 hours on May 1. After that, the film will be available to MUBI subscribers