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Disco Dictator

Tony Manero
Tony Manero (Pablo Larraín, Chile, 2008)
Cannes 2008 - Director's Fortnight
When a country is under the siege of a military dictatorship, the society breaks down and reveals the darker face of everyday people. Instead of showing us our typically Manichean heroic movie, with the hopeful and resilient goodies on one side and the mean authority of the government on the other side, Pablo Larraín prefers to paint here an ambiguous and disconcerting portrait of Chile after the traumatic (and CIA-backed) coup by Pinochet on September 11, 1973.
In 1979, Raùl Peralta runs a dance class in a small suburb of Santiago de Chile. Ironically his dance style is more inspired by the American culture conveyed by the current box office success of Saturday Night Fever (Badham, 1977), than by the local folklore or Tango. Despite the food restrictions and the constant military patrols, his obsession is to become the perfect lookalike of John Travolta's character (the eponymous Tony Manero) for a TV show, which makes life hell for everybody around him.
The film turns the premise of a rom-com into a quiet cold-blooded serial-killer thriller with only slight political undertones. The repeated citation of Travolta's films, the focal attention to TV, and this disco frenzy that seems to enthuse everyone tend to make us oblivious of the actual misery of this dictatorship. We are in the atmosphere of Le Dernier Métro (Truffaut, 1980), where a familial theatre troupe attempts to keep the show going on under WW2 German occupation of France. But the blatant dictator, here, is Raùl himself, the admired dancing idol who runs his business with a fist of iron. The lovable dancer with great moves quickly reveals a murderous tendency that takes advantage of the fear-inducing climate imposed by the military junta to commit crimes, steal or lay someone else's girlfriend, all without any remorse or risks of accountability.
His first victim could be motivated by Raùl's disapproval of her loyalty to Pinochet, but we soon realize his random, impulsive crimes are purely mercantile and proof of his lack of any moral value. Another trigger of his rampage is the replacement of his fetish movie by Travolta's next venture, Grease (Kleiser, 1978)!
In the short video interview at Cahiers, the director said he wanted to avoid the mistakes he made in his debut film, and this time he tried to evoke the History of Chile through a little story. Small things reflect the events of the big picture in a more subtle way. The film refers tangentially to political events, like when an Argentine model is interviewed on TV, alluding to Chile's casus belli with Argentina over the strategical ownership of the islands of the Beagle canal, at the south of the Latin American continent (1977-78).
Alfredo Castro impersonates Raùl like John Cassavetes in his bitter macho roles: Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) or Opening Night (1977). He doesn't talk much, but the people revolving around him (his mother, his lover and her daughter, a young dance teacher) all do as he wants without any coercion outside of a strong psychological dominance. His bursts of anger are unstoppable, his libido must be satisfied, and his obsessive-compulsive identification with a fictitious character is encouraged (this aspect of the lookalike fetishism was the focus of Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely, which was a 2007 Un Certain Regard selection at Cannes, or Yann Moix' Podium in 2004).
Pablo Larraín says he had to hasten the post-production of his film in order to deliver the reels to Olivier Père for Cannes. I wonder how much of this could explain certain awkward cuts, and the intentional discontinuity between takes within a unique scene. Though Larraín seems to experiment with out-of-focus shots too (an intention more justifiable than the jump cuts in my mind), so it might all be part of an (arguable) anti-conformist stance. It's an underachieved charm that also characterizes the films of Cassavetes, so why not. The underdramatized treatment of this transgressive and immoral character is alone sufficient to make a powerful political synthesis of Chile's indigestible past.

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