Thoughts on ‘Jackie’

It’s a strange experience to watch a biopic of a person of whom you’ve heard, but with whom you’re not especially familiar. The Kennedy era preceded my birth. Hell, my parents were both just one years old when President JFK was assassinated on November 22nd 1963 in Dallas, Texas. I never watched any of JFK’s speeches as I have done with Michelle and Barack’s. I never saw Jackie’s televised tour of the White House. Or John’s inauguration. As I expect is the case with most people of, and before my generation, I know them through the lens of tragedy. Perhaps more than most, thanks to a visit to Hyannis, Cape Cod and an intense passion for American history. But even then, JFK and Jackie are legends, not people.

As a woman with many monikers and identities; Jacqueline Bouvier, Jackie Kennedy, Jacqueline Lee Kennedy Onassis, Jackie O, she is essentially unknowable. She is many things to many people and thus defies the classification that biopics tend to dish up. Aside from Todd Haynes’ experimental, multi-faceted unravelling of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, I can think of few that don’t somehow reduce the very person they aim to glorify. By simply titling the film Jackie however, director Pablo Larrain, in his first foray into English-language cinema, infers that this will be a much more intimate and penetrating view of America’s beloved First Lady.

And indeed it is. By deconstructing Jackie’s public persona and excavating beyond the superficiality that she herself so masterfully, and somewhat manipulatively moulded, and instead depicting her in moments of astonishing anguish; mourning her husband, her identity and her place in the world, whilst at the same time navigating the crisis that was losing a President, we see a side to Jackie that has been little explored. It doesn’t lay claim to knowing the whole story, or attempt to condense her entire existence into a two-hour yarn. Rather, at a nimble 100 minutes, it offers an insight into a very particular and defining moment.

By simply titling the film Jackie however, director Pablo Larrain, in his first foray into English-language cinema, infers that this will be a much more intimate and penetrating view of America’s beloved First Lady.

What’s more, Jackie avoids the fate of many sycophantic biopics by refraining from lavishing its subject with unreserved reverence. Jackie, as depicted by Larrain and portrayed by Natalie Portman (giving Emma Stone a very good run for her money in the Best Actress Oscar stakes) is a prickly, tenacious creature, unafraid of exerting the influence she has accrued. However the film also appraises her with sincerity, subtlety and compassion. Jackie is refracted through many angles, and as such the film becomes a complex composite of all her colours and emotions. In this film she is so much more than the pink two-piece she was wearing on that fateful November day. An icon yes. But a woman first. A woman whose future is in jeopardy and who is striving to retain her relevance and sense of self, as well as the more immediate, concrete concern of her economic stability.

In its deconstruction of character, Jackie cleverly employs or rather recreates historical artefacts, such as the televised tour of the White House that Jackie gave in 1962 to exhibit the renovations she had made (a bizarrely staged and mannered affair). Or the interview with Theodore H. White (here simply known as ‘the journalist’ and played by an understated Billy Crudup), where Jackie blatantly states that she will revise whatever is said and approve what makes it into print. After a particularly uncharacteristic and extemporaneous admission of grief, she adds, ‘Don’t think for one second I’m going to let you print that’. There’s a particularly wry moment of abridgment where Crudup audaciously suggests he mention Jackie’s habit of smoking in print. No sooner than she takes a dispassionate drag of her cigarette, she replies, “I don’t smoke”. Jackie places herself as the subeditor of hers and John’s history; abbreviating and polishing to the exclusion of anything considered improper, determined to secure their legacy in United States history. Candor is not the currency through which the Kennedys, or indeed any First Family trades. Whilst her motivations are desperately poignant, there’s also playfulness to Portman’s Jackie in these moments. She is a woman fully aware of her authority and wielding it most forcefully at the time it’s being called most into question. Of course the very existence of this film suggests her ambition triumphed.

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Portman is a force of regal nature. Perhaps taking inspiration from her Oscar-winning turn as a ballet dancer in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (who was slated to direct this at one point), her Jackie is poised and precise, at once a figure of extreme beauty and strength, but also of innate sadness. Her face is at the fore of every frame, and never once does it betray her. Despite the contrivance of Jackie’s unique, whispery and melodious drawl and the scrupulousness of her image, all structured silhouettes and dignified accessories, revealing the machinations of the political system, Portman is free of any such woodenness. Through her you see not an impression of an icon, but rather you feel the anguish of a widow. Slight of frame and diminutive in stature though Portman may be, it is more than compensated for by her incandescent, imperial onscreen presence.

Two distinct moments of her performance particularly awed me. The first takes place near the beginning of the film. No sooner has JFK been wheeled off to the morgue than Jackie must preside over the swearing in of his successor, Lyndon B Johnson (John Carroll Lynch). Portman is a picture of paralysed disbelief, where only the flash of a camera is capable of jolting her out of this nebulous nightmare. Larrain cleverly begins the scene with Jackie at the centre of the frame, with Johnson reciting the presidential oath off-screen. Gradually however she is pushed farther and farther towards the edge until physically removed from the picture. You see the realisation creep onto Portman’s face and it’s heartbreaking.

Slight of frame and diminutive in stature though Portman may be, it is more than compensated for by her incandescent, imperial onscreen presence.

The second is towards the end of the film, whereupon, until now, Larrain has refrained from depicting the events of the assassination. In visceral, gory detail – after Jackie has admitted to a priest (John Hurt) of being able to remember everything – JFK’s brain literally explodes across the screen. The astounding thing however is not that image. Rather, it’s Portman’s reaction to it. At first, shock and outrage. But then her instinct becomes harrowingly practical. She picks the pieces of her husband’s shattered cranium off the bonnet of the car and attempts to hold it together, whilst no doubt falling apart on the inside. Portman reconciles these two conflicts – of public vs private – beautifully. Her Jackie is at once wrecked and stoic, restrained and powerful, ethereal and relentless, and the result of all these fragmented identities being played out on screen is nothing less than astonishing.

Natalie Portman as "Jackie Kennedy" in JACKIE. Photo by Stephanie Branchu. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

In keeping with this sense of performativity, is the aesthetic of camp which Larrain flavours his film with. Indeed Susan Sontag noted that

Camp taste has an affinity for certain arts rather than others. Clothes, furniture, all the elements of visual décor, for instance, make up a large part of Camp. For Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content”.

This exert practically summarises Jackie’s concerns throughout the film; a woman obsessively passionate with the preservation of historical artefacts and décor in the White House, her affinity for fashion, surfaces, image and perception. A legacy which is surreally and brazenly tackled when Jackie is confronted with mannequins, ready to adorn shop windows, in exact replica of her funereal ensembles. Indeed Robert Kennedy (a scintillating Peter Sarsgaard) fears that his family will just be remembered now as “the beautiful people.”

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However, the pinnacle of these theatrical inflections comes during a sequence in which Richard Burton’s ‘Camelot’ blares from the stereo as Jackie drunkenly parades through the White House in various outfits of incredible extravagance; a frenzy of jewellery, designer gowns and dressing up, the flamboyance of her female-ness on full display. And yet the whole affair, however exquisitely photographed, is underscored by sadness and lugubriousness, framed by the interview in which she laments the life marrying the President bestowed upon her. This sadness is reiterated by that histrionic tour of the same building, to which Larrain keeps referring. As if Jackie has now become one of the ghosts that she acknowledged.

Speaking of which, Danish actor Caspar Phillipson could actually be a long-lost relative of the Kennedy’s, such is the uncanny resemblance he bears to the bygone president he plays, and yet for most of his screen time he is merely glimpsed, obscured or simply peripheralized in favour of Jackie. The effect, aside from cementing this as very much her narrative, is creating a sort of mythical, phatom quality to JFK. Just as life eluded him, he eludes the screen.

The score, composed by Mica Levi, only accentuates this ghostly timbre. It is a quivering, grandiose melee of strings, lacerating woodwind, lingering chords and woozy glissando. The effect is eerie and chilling, which, when combined with the fragmented, memoiristic editing – as if Larrain is attempting to depict a collage or impression of trauma –  as well as the claustrophobic interiors and tight close-ups give the film the texture of a chamber horror piece, not all that disparate from the unnerving alien world of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, on which Levi made her scoring debut. Before the first shot of Portman graces the screen, the music; a reverberating, siren-like outpouring of grief, sets the tone. This will jar with the image of Jackie – composed, fragile, elegant – we might have hitherto entertained. This score and this Jackie, is fierce.

Costume and production design are of equal importance and do a splendid job of resurrecting the era, whilst the grainy, archival texture to the footage lends the film a certain seriousness and heft. Though there’s more to it than that. The uncanny reproduction of history invites you to scrutinise its appearance, to see it as performance, wherein each detail is a carefully selected choice. From the gloves to the drapes, nothing has been put there accidentally. A motif that resurfaces throughout the film is that of Jackie looking through reflective surfaces such as mirrors and windows and emphasises the sense of her multiplicity. In one such striking shot there are literally three fragmented Jackies.

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This film is nothing if not preferential towards reflexivity, constantly calling attention to the way the Kennedy’s were constructed and consumed. In a moment of wry self-awareness, Jackie and the journalist enjoy the following exchange:

JACKIE

The truth? Well I’ve grown accustomed to a great divide between what people believe and what I know to be real.

JOURNALIST

Fine, I will settle for a story that’s believable.

JACKIE

That’s more like it. You know I used to be a reporter myself once. I know what you’re looking for.

JOURNALIST

I’m sorry?

JACKIE

A moment-by-moment account. That’s what you came here for, isn’t it?

But don’t be mistaken, this isn’t an unmasking of Jackie Kennedy. Despite the scenes of her removing bloodied stockings, or rinsing of the blood of late husband in the shower, in the end Jackie maintains her veil. And whether she was this sort of woman in real life, I guess we’ll never know.

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Verdict: A vivid, mesmeric, tightly-controlled and searingly poignant interpretation of events, shot with a crisp, confident majesty. Much like Larrain’s subject, his film will leave a lasting impression.