Director: Pablo Larraín Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt Running Time: 99 minutes
It would perhaps be a stretch to call Pablo Larraín’s Jackie a surreal film. In terms of narrative structure and subject matter, it still functions as a straight enough biopic about Jackie Kennedy. But we all know what happened to Jackie Kennedy, and what could be more surreal than having your husband, the President of the United States, have his head blown to pieces right next to you? Isn’t reaching for a piece of skull, frantically, nonsensically, the kind of gesture that might fascinate directors like David Lynch or, as is the case, Larraín? Still structurally a biopic, what makes Jackie so interesting is its effectiveness in capturing the surreal, funereal air around the aftermath of a situation that was never supposed to happen. And just as responsible for creating that feeling is Natalie Portman as Jackie, in possibly her best performance as the shellshocked out-of-nowhere widow.
Jackie is focused on the immediate aftermath of the JFK assassination, as told by Jackie to a journalist visiting her post-White House home. The infamous events plpay out in a haze, filmed by Larraín in much the same way as many battle scenes are done in films today; slow motion, sound cutting in and out. Portman, decked out in pink in that famous pillbox hat and Chanel suit, stained with blood, plays the shock perfectly. She replicates that post-trauma sense that if you just do that next simple, impossible thing, like wash the blood from your hands, or tell your tiny children that their father had to go away, then maybe the world will stop being upside down.
Reeling, Jackie clings to the things that make the Kennedys the Kennedys; performance and legacy. After all, she was the First Lady who let America into the White House (which she renovated to leave her mark), a television event interspersed in black and white throughout this story. She knows the value of how she and her family are seen, and amidst everything else, now even the carefully crafted image she’s made will be marred forever by this nightmarish intrusion to the narrative. “Nothing’s ever mine, not to keep” as she says. While Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) tries to comfort, protect and handle her, Jackie pours herself into planning her husband’s funeral procession. It has to be massive, it has to tie back to the Lincoln funeral procession. Performance and legacy. If John is still performing and adding to his legacy, then can’t be really gone. The world can be turned right side up.
This is a showcase role for Portman and Larraín gives her the space to work. She portrays the First Lady at different stages of performative certainty; nervous but enthusiastic in the White House tour flashbacks, but steely and bitter while being interviewed by Billy Crudup’s slightly sarky reporter. She recants whole passages of vulnerable, honest grief on a dime, using her own journalistic background to dominate proceedings. In between these frames, with the performance stripped away, Portman keeps a lot of emotional plates spinning and when necessary, shatters them. In the film’s disoriented atmosphere, she often plays Jackie as someone experiencing all five stages of grief at once. Get a drink and a cigarette in her hands and there are even mad, brilliant flashes of Lucille Bluth in there. She plays well off of Crudup, Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s friend and employee Beth Grant and Sarsgaard, playing Bobby also devastated, impotently needling LBJ and raging against the loss of what the Kennedys were going to build. Also supporting is John Hurt in an excellent and all too brief appearance as a priest attempting to provide solace. Hurt’s great composure as an actor provides a necessary lift to the film as it starts to sag. The more Jackie sinks into funeral arrangements the more conventional her film becomes, with some arguing over what can and can’t be done that isn’t especially interesting. The ideological battle between the priest and the lost Catholic widow on the other hand helps keep the film’s energy levels up.
Larraín gives Jackie its uncertain air, but his direction also puts the film at an emotional distance. His tight close ups on Portmans face provoke discomfort, lasting long enough to suggest that her grief is fascinating rather than felt. It’s potentially alienating, but it’s what makes Jackie so different in its genre and it’s bolstered by the score of Mica Levi. Her music here is more restrained and somber than Under the Skin, but still adds to the surreal air, her strings evoking the cold, empty feeling in the stomach better than standard biopic musical grandstanding. Larraín shoots on grainy film that pairs seemlessly with the archive footage spliced throughout, an unnerving effect aided by the sparing way he uses JFK. The eerily similar looking Casper Phillipson is cast, seen only in fleeting glances, never speaking for himself (authentic audio of JFK is used instead) and Larraín plays a devious trick in how he depicts the actual assassination. The structure also has some trickery woven in, with the time between different elements of the film presented as being longer than they actually are, again reflecting the haze in which everything after such an upheaval happens. Like their subject, the Chilean director and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim get caught up in the importance of legacy, but for an biopic that’s an almost inescapable element they handle as best they can.
“There will never be another Camelot” is the line the film focuses on, from the cheesy musical Camelot that was a JFK favourite. A piece of history has come to a sudden end. The stock description for any film with even a hint of surrealism is ‘dreamlike’, but for Jackie Kennedy, remembering dances and private music concerts and playing housewife for television audiences, everything before the film was the dream. Jackie rips Camelot away and what Larraín and Portman leave in its place is not a dream, it’s sleep paralysis, horrifying and hallucinatory and grimly gripping.(4 / 5)
Jackie opens in Irish cinemas on Friday.