It may seem pointless to publish an entire post on a film that was released over two months ago and is now out of theatres, but Pablo Larraín’s Jackie was remarkable enough a film of 2017 for me to note it on this blog even after its run is finished. There were other films I watched and missed the chance to write about in the last few weeks, such as Fences and Hidden Figures (each of which has significant merit and appeal), but I found Jackie a particularly interesting and idiosyncratic work.
Since most readers who are interested in the film will already have seen it, and even those who haven’t are familiar to some degree with the real-life events it portrays, no plot summary or context is required of me here. Suffice it to remind you that it follows Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the days from her husband’s murder to his funeral (plus a few flashbacks to before the murder, and a single day following the funeral), shown in hindsight, framed in a later interview of Jackie (as I’ll call the movie character to distinguish her from the real-life Jacqueline Kennedy) by an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup). The story of the few days of arranging the funeral and Jackie’s life immediately afterwards is based in large part on the Life magazine interview by Theodore H. White, which is presumably what the fictionalised interview is meant to depict, or represent, as well as the deeper-probing interview with Arthur M. Schlesinger, which was only made public many years later. The flashbacks are taken from what we can guess about life in the Kennedy White House from the few public descriptions given of it by Mrs Kennedy, most famously in her 1962 televised tour of the White House.
Natalie Portman emanates a soft glow of chilled dignity and control. Larraín elicits a Jackie from her of fierce calculation and a well-disguised desperation. The script provides good reason for this: Jackie fears the political and social alienation, as well as, not least, the financial insecurity that may befall her and her young children following a sudden and unexpected drop from prestige and power. Her determined strategy to brand a gleaming, enduring memory of the slain president by way of a very public funeral procession fulfills her wishes both to commemorate and grieve her husband as well as to obtain a secure future for herself and her children through the strength of his revered remembrance. She passes – at the headlong, shattering speed of personal tragedy – from the wife of the most powerful man in the world, through the partition of witnessing a gruesome murder, to a forlorn widow; the task she takes on is not to dwindle into the dark recesses of a short-lived popular consciousness.
Larraín and Portman both exhibit an excellent grasp of Kennedy as a pop icon. It is well understood that no audience would resist holding the image of Portman, as Jackie, up against their memories of Kennedy; it’d be close to treason to be found wanting, and close to impossible not to be. Larraín employs ingenious devices, not to vault Portman into an uncanny resemblance, but to ease her into it. In nearly every scene, Portman is first shot from the back before we see her face, sometimes for a significant portion of the scene’s screen time; the hairdressers worked painstakingly to recreate exactly Kennedy’s tousled bouffant, and when we’re so sure that it’s the first lady’s hair we’re seeing on Portman’s body, it’s not too large a step to believing that we can see flickers of her face in Portman’s as well. We’re used to thinking of her as an exact likeness before we’re almost imperceptibly reminded that she’s not. Of course, Portman has quite different features from Kennedy’s: where Kennedy was delicate and fragile, with wide-set eyes and a square face, Portman is delicate and soft, silken rather than brittle, with narrower and more rounded facial features. But she moves in a way I can precisely picture Kennedy moving in, and very nearly reproduces Kennedy’s soft voice and lisping transatlantic accent. We’re also shown a few clips of a recreation of the tour of the White House, with Portman appearing as Jackie and emulating her nervous, stilted manner for the television cameras. And Madeline Fontaine’s costumes star nearly alongside Portman (pink Chanel, once seen, can never be forgotten), playing just as important a part in evoking the persona as well as the era of Kennedy.
Portman gave her best work – one of the very best screen performances of the current cinema – in Darren Aronofsky’s recent masterwork Black Swan. It makes sense to presume that Aronofsky, a producer of Jackie, had a significant hand in its making, from the way Larraín approaches (but certainly doesn’t reach) Aronofsky’s success in drawing great presence from Portman, and from the common theme with Black Swan of a performer’s contrasting personas for different audiences and situations. The shortcomings in Portman’s performance are due, in part, to the script, and the director’s responses to it. Larraín’s Jackie is a character composed of motives and contexts, goals to achieve and methods by which to go about achieving them, characteristics to embody and actions to enact. Larraín facilitates all of these in the performance with a very steady competence and a tender admiration for the character, and even more for the actor. But he doesn’t quite succeed in drawing from her what isn’t given to him in the script: the physical expressions and spontaneous revelations of her inner being, the parts of the character that can only be created and the parts of the actor that can only be discovered in images and not text. Aronofsky spun Portman in the role of a splintered artistic personality into a deliriously beautiful and breathlessly opaque figure of terror and ecstasy; Larraín holds her up as a wondrous icon, but the very sense of cinematic wonder that would turn that depiction into a deep and personal creation is what’s missing. For example, he does well in sketching a general illustration of a grieving widow, but nothing he films and no edit he devises conveys so material a sense of loss than the sudden appearance onscreen of John Hurt as the Roman Catholic Jackie’s confessor. (He died a little over a month before the film was released in South Africa.)
The story, set out in the script by Noah Oppenheim (which he initially conceived as an HBO miniseries), works similarly to other political biopics of recent years. Most immediate in my mind is Selma, Ava DuVernay’s brilliant portrayal of the voters’ rights campaign of Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Selma, Jackie presents a portrait of a global political icon by means of a depiction of a single essential period in the person’s life. It extrapolates its story of Kennedy from the four days it depicts. Also like Selma, Jackie is a film about political images that becomes a political image itself. Like Jackie in the film, the filmmakers gracefully mix fact with fantasy in order to bring about the ideas and reflections they’re looking for. It shows how calculation and strategy were used to create the icon of John Kennedy that has stood like a molded statue in the American imagination ever since, and, thereby, creates an icon of its depiction of Jacqueline Kennedy herself. Part of what is shown is how Mrs Kennedy was an inadvertent player on the political stage in America at a critical time in world history. Nothing of the Kennedy administration is shown – not its people (other than the vice president, who is anxious to take over as soon as possible, and the attorney general, who acts as Jackie’s principal advisor and confidante), its policies, nor its actions – but it is shown how close she was, in her personal capacity, to those at the top of it, and, in a sidelong way, how influential she was to it.
We’re invited to admire her distinct brand of intelligence and of strength, and are told a story to satisfy our curiosity about the first lady’s personal life and private activity. I have no idea whether what the filmmakers show us is really what happened in Kennedy’s private moments, behind the scenes of the public events, but, having seen the film, my options are now either to discard it as someone else’s illustration for what happened, or to substitute it for any of my previous imagined scenarios. And the film is partly deceptive in this regard: It could appear to viewers as far more candid than is actually possible; in apparently demystifying Kennedy (such as by using the diminutive “Jackie”) and baring her to the audience, it shrouds her once again, in an imagined yet empathic garment of poise and vulnerability. But it exposes that, too, as a naked conceit: The film ends with a shot of Jackie and the president dancing to the Broadway cast recording of Camelot, the very work used by Kennedy (and Jackie, in the film) to memorialise her husband’s term of office. The crooning Richard Burton reminds us of the spinning of a yarn that becomes iconic of its time, and, as Kennedy’s did of her husband, Larraín’s of Jackie fits in somewhere on the scale between Lerner and Loewe, and Arthurian legend.