Happiness is Our Product
The screen is filled with a soda commercial. The sun shines, couples stroll and smile in a leafy park, someone brandishes the soda bottle, a man in black and white makeup performs. Wait. “What the fuck is a mime doing in the middle of my movie?” The camera cuts to the ad man René (Gael García Bernal), as he listens to Lucho (Alfredo Castro), the man who’s hired him and now worries that what he’s seeing—the mime, for instance—is “not us.” René nods and explains that this s precisely his project, to change the going formulation of “us.” He turns to Lucho’s associates, seated around a table to watch the ad, and says, “We have to trust our product.”
Here again, a moment in No that gives pause. For just as René describes how television shapes consumers, Pablo Larraín’s film introduces how television shapes politics. Lucho hires René to create the “No” campaign, an effort to convince voters to reject a dictator. It’s 1988 in Chile, and Augusto Pinochet has announced the October 5 national plebiscite, a chance for people to say yes or no to eight more years of his rule, the rule established by a 1973 US-backed coup d’état and notoriously brutal throughout its 15 years.
As Pinochet promises a transition to democracy via the plebiscite, his campaign and that of his opponents (several parties assembled as the “Coalition of Parties for NO”) are each granted 15 minutes on TV a night for 27 nights. René the pitchman understands both the meaning and means of television ads, how they create desires and consumers too: the mime, TV, “we,” “our product,” they’re all of a piece.
René‘s clients are reluctant, worrying that the dictator’s many crimes will be repressed, that the 40% poverty rate will be forgotten, and the campaign will be full of lies. René, however, maintains that you can’t sell fear, that consumers won’t vote no if their only reason is negative. The product needs to be appealing, “something a little lighter and a little nicer.” And so he and his team come up with the La alegría ya viene (“Joy is coming”) campaign. Working essentially without funds, eluding authorities, and shooting guerrilla-style, they film riders on horses and dancers on sidewalks, bellbottoms wide and sunshine grainy.
If these ads look vintage, “something a little lighter and a little nicer,” it’s because they are. No uses actual ads from the campaign, then shoots its narrative scenes on TV tape, matching the ads’ washed out colors and handheld irregularities, life bleeding over into fantasy and vice versa. As much as the president’s men try to counter the happiness pitch, offering images of a grandfatherish Pinochet in civilian clothes rather than his usual military uniform, waving to crowds and praised by citizens. The No campaign comes back, with more smiling children, more kids on bikes, and then, remarkably, a choreographed number where mothers sing about their disappeared sons and daughters.
The number, shot first to reveal the mechanics and then revealed as a TV spot, underlines all sorts of absurdity and cynicism, of the Pinochet regime and its referendum, of the ad men’s answers and the consumers’ tastes. It also makes clear a trajectory in Larraín’s trilogy about the Pinochet era, a trajectory concerned with the mainstreaming of pathologies, whether the killer as John Travolta imitator in 2008’s Tony Manero, the morgue attendant for whom too much death exposes the trivial nature of life in 2010’s Post Mortem, and now, the salesman who becomes the most perfect product in No.
For even as René may be the most accomplished, most apparently self-aware of the pitchmen in No, the film suggests that he is also consuming, selling, and sold. He’s assumed the means of US commercial culture, has faith in its effectiveness (the celebrities who appear in ads supporting No include Jane Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss), and he believes that this time, the US is “with us.”
René is surrounded by the objects he’s tasked to sell, at once conscious of how he dresses them up and how they also deliver on their promises, to a point. When he brings home a new microwave that barely fits into his small living room, he shows it off to his less-than-impressed little boy Simón (Pascal Montero) as a fun new way to make cheese sandwiches. But even as Simón might embody a future that has little to do with microwaves or with the noisy toy train set that fills up the floor in that same living room (brief scenes contrasting and also connecting “home” and “work,” indicating the film’s tight, perfect construction), René is ever reminded of an immediate, still painful past represented by his ex, Verónica (Antonia Zegers). A dedicated activist, she persists in demonstrating and being arrested, sometimes abused by police.
When on one occasion René is on hand to witness the beating, his efforts to intervene are useless. The officer tosses him aside and drags Veró and her fellows away, bloodied and crumpled. René‘s other option, pulling strings to get her released from jail, is effective but shortsighted, manipulating and so prolonging the system of favors that reinforces both power and powerlessness. René‘s dilemma doesn’t resolve here: he never sorts out a single right path, only muddles through. It’s a notion suggested both by the charming images of him making his way to work on his skateboard and also an unnerving scene where a referendum rally goes wrong, authorities assaulting citizens with bats and gas, and René must escape through the panicky crowd with little Simón, their day out ruined.
With these images of René in motion in mind, the fact that Pinochet loses the plebiscite seems almost an afterthought. Again, René is making his way through a crowd, and again, it’s unclear what’s been wrought. With the dictator voted out, the new product is in. Whether that product means something apart from itself as product, the one we have to trust.