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What does the title refer to?
That should be a no-brainer. In 1988, international pressure led the Chilean leader, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had come to power in a CIA-backed coup in 1973, to agree to hold a plebiscite, on Oct. 5, on whether or not he should remain in power. Vote YES for Pinochet, vote NO and real elections follow.
René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is a former exile, the son of a leftist and ex-husband of a leftist, who now works in advertising, and who agrees to advise the NO campaign.
For the 30 days leading up to the vote, both sides, YES and NO, are given 15 minutes to make their case each night on state-run television, and most of the NO folks, including Patricio Alywin, who will become the first president of Chile after Pinochet, want to focus on Pinochet’s past crimes: the hundreds of thousands exiled; the tens of thousands tortured; the thousands executed and disappeared. Saavedra sees this and says “Is that all?” He says, “This … this doesn’t sell.” So he and his team set about crafting a product that might win the election. They create a campaign that is sometimes serious, sometimes humorous, and almost always about the happiness that a true democracy will bring. Because, he asks, what’s happier than happiness? Nada, he answers.
“This is the true story,” the international trailer tells us, “of a marketing campaign that sparked a revolution!”
So it’s obvious what “No” refers to. It refers to the moment when a people told a dictator, “No!”
But might it also be referring to René Saavedra? Is the movie actually saying “No!” to its hero?
What’s happier than happiness?
We first see René, in the movie’s old-school video format, making a pitch to the makers of a cola, “Free,” which involves MTVish dancing girls and mimes and silly stuff. “What you’re going to see now is in line with the current social context,” he says. It’s a sentence he will repeat twice more in the movie.
In the middle of this meeting he gets a visitor: José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco). “The communist?” he’s asked. “Do you know him?” He shrugs it off but is clearly uncomfortable, or at least annoyed, by the presence of Urrutia. Maybe he doesn’t like having a pitch interrupted? But then Urrutia makes a pitch to him: Would he help with the NO campaign? René gives it a moment and then says, “No.”
What changes his mind? We’re not quite sure. After work, he visits the police station, where Veronica (Antonia Zegers), his ex-wife, is being jailed after another political protest. He watches as she gets punched in the face by the cops. Is that what changes his mind? That’s what we assume. But what happens next? He heads home to make dinner for his son, Simon (Pascal Montero), and to work on a campaign for a microwave oven. The wife, who lives elsewhere, comes home later, as he’s taking the boy to bed. They talk in muffled tones, she asks to kiss Simon, and as she leans close, René almost breathes her in. You can see pain of lost love on his face. Look closely. It’s one of the last times you’ll get any emotion out of René.
The NO campaign comes together bit by bit. Initially, there’s an almost “Barton Fink”-like joke, since René’s first pitch is remarkably similar to his pitch for Free Cola. It’s as if he has just one pitch in him. But he’s more adaptable than that. At one point he’s conversing with his mentor, who arrives with the CIA-like phrase, “I’m not here,” and they’re talking in muffled tones, trying to suss out the answer. How do you win this? What sells? “We need to have a product that is sufficiently attractive,” they say. They ask René’s maid why she’s on the YES side. She shrugs. I’m fine, she says. My kids are fine, she says. So how do you combat “fine”? Not with fear. With happiness.
Someone suggests folk songs? He counters with jingles. Veronica tells him his campaign is a joke? He changes the subject. The opposition talks up the wealth of the supposedly impoverished characters in the NO campaign? He brushes it aside. He knows it doesn’t matter. He tells his people to add more jokes. He makes the campaign fun and dazzling.
Sure, he gets pressured by Pinochet’s goons. Graffiti is spraypainted on his home and car. His housekeeper is threatened by soldiers on the streets. The ad team is watched, followed. He receives a late-night phone call. “How are you, René? How is Simon? I like your train.” Click.
His boss, Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), is working on the YES campaign, and the two square off numerous times. Guzman tells government ministers, “We’re going to fuck them up,” and he says it to René, too. René says it back. Guzman implies he’ll fire him and René dares him. “Go ahead, fire me,” he says. The tension between the two men feels personal and political but it’s neither. We’re surprised, for example, when halfway through the movie René is still working for Guzman. He’s working for him in the end as well. So if it’s not personal or political, what is it?
It’s competition. They both want to win. Maybe that’s all René ever wanted.
The tension between form and content
From the beginning, most of those involved in the NO campaign think the entire referendum is a sham, since, no matter the vote, Pinochet won’t let go of power. We assume the opposite, since the movie has been made. But we’re still on the edge of our seats.
The key event, really, occurs election night, Oct. 5, when the generals of the various armed forces don’t back Pinochet’s attempt to rig the election. They keep it fair. That’s really how that dictatorship crumbles. The NO campaign helped, certainly, but without the generals the rigged vote would’ve simply been one more lie during 15 years of lies.
Instead, NO wins: 55 to 45 percent. For a moment, they’re all stunned. Then they begin to celebrate. And as politicians make speeches and people shout and dance and sing, René picks up Simon and weaves his way through the crowds. At one point his eyes get a little misty. Does he smile? I don’t recall. Is he happy? One assumes so but we have no evidence. Does he celebrate with everyone? With anyone? No. He just walks through the crowd, holds onto his son, and thinks. It’s what he’s been doing for the entire movie, really. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lead character think so much onscreen.
This is the movie’s high point but it doesn’t end here. It continues. We watch René, on his skateboard again, on his way to work again, where he makes a pitch to a soap opera using the same language he used before: “the current social context,” etc. And that’s our end.
What’s changed from the beginning of the movie? Nada. Todo y nada. So why end like this? Why focus on René? Why make him the way he is? Without seeming motivation? Without seeming emotion? Why film the movie in video with its ugly, boxy (1.33:1) aspect ratio?
Throughout, I felt a tension between the movie’s form and its content. What René pitches, what he sells, is the opposite of what writer-director Pablo Larraín is saying and selling.
“No” is an art flick but its hero is selling Hollywood endings. He’s selling glamour even though he’s filmed in unglamorous locations using unglamorous video. The movie has a right to be happy—“a marketing campaign that sparked a revolution!”—but it doesn’t indulge in its happiness. It’s dour. It’s gray. René would not approve. He would look at the movie and say, “Is that all?” He would look at Larraín and say, “This … this doesn’t sell.”
So what is Pablo Larraín selling?
The current social context
In 1985, cultural critic Neil Postman wrote “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” in which he argued that of the two dystopian novels of the first half of the 20th century, George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” it was the latter, not the former, that is the more accurate depiction of the modern western world. Our problem isn’t totalitarianism but capitalism. We don’t suffer from a lack of choices but an abundance of them. We haven’t become a captive culture but a trivial one. We aren’t controlled by the threat of pain but by the promise of pleasure. We keep voting for happiness.
Pablo Larraín’s “No” is about the return of democracy to Chile, and that’s a glorious event, but the movie doesn’t indulge in the glory. It recognizes that even as one tyrant is overthrown, a lesser tyrant emerges. Chile loses “1984” and gains “Brave New World.” It says “No” to Pinochet. But saying “No” to René? Well, why would we even do that? Why would we say “No” to the promise of happiness?
“What you’re going to see now,” René says at the beginning of the movie, “is in line with the current social context.” Yes. Yes, it is.
April 8, 2013
© 2013 Erik Lundegaard