Silently, white credits appear, one after the other. The screen goes black.
The orchestra assaults us. Is this an overture? It seems so at first, but it’s too short. Now we’re looking at Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman), as the camera frame slowly boxes her in, setting her apart from everyone else even though she is surrounded by people at her service. In her sudden, assaultive transition from joyous first lady to grief-stricken widow, she has been suddenly, sharply isolated from her surroundings. And with clever cinematic techniques, we feel it without her having to say a word.
Jackie, on a narrative level, is primarily about the words that are said, as the framing device is a Life magazine reporter (Billy Crudup, unnamed onscreen but based on Theodore H. White) interviewing the former First Lady for a profile. And not just any profile: the one that would come to dub the Kennedy administration as “Camelot.” In not entirely linear fashion, Jackie remembers the assassination and everything after (and a few things before), as the camera and editing become memory, as jumpy and sometimes awkward as the human mind itself. Nothing suggests they’re quite as unreliable as real memories are, but we know the reporter’s account will be, considering that Jackie periodically stops him to say he can’t use anything he’s just heard, because she never said it. It’s an amusing rebuke to people who somehow believe the media is only now unusually deferential to those in power.
No doubt Portman saw parallels to Helen Mirren‘s The Queen in selecting such a similarly Oscar-seeking showcase–both deal with the reaction of powerful women to national and personal tragedy, and the degree to which the fiercely stoic personae they’ve had to cultivate at the top prevent them from responding as normal human beings can and do. When everyone around you can and will accomodate your every wish (save the unspoken one about undoing the death at the heart of it all), but you can’t hold it together enough to make those wishes rationally, what then? Jackie suggests that the alienation already in place only grows stronger. And yet by hanging in there long enough to dominate a reporter after the fact, Mrs. Kennedy was able to rewrite her own history for the better.
Director Pablo Larrain expertly uses most of the tools at his disposal to create a stylistic masterpiece of a fractured narrative, interspersing a TV shoot of Jackie showing a reporter around the White House, and demonstrating the open, happy version of herself. I suspect he’s seen Amos Gitai’s Free Zone, a film containing Portman’s greatest performance, which opens in a long, unflinching closeup of the actress crying until makeup runs down her cheeks; certainly, he’s confident enough to do similar framings and takes with her face here, and she is as unflinching as cinematographer Stephane Fontaine’s camera. The score by Orchestrate (Under the Skin) is dissonant, alienating, and vaguely hostile throughout, like the world feels after you’ve lost a loved one.
As to Portman’s performance, however–it is hamstrung by the degree to which Mrs. Kennedy had such a distinctive manner of speaking, and possibly by the fact that the Chilean director may not be able to distinguish different spoken-English accents as easily as a native. Going in, I confess I was not as familiar with the real-life Jackie as my parents might be, and found Portman’s take on her accent somewhat affected but upper-class believable. Having looked at video footage of the real deal since, I’m unconvinced: the First Lady herself sounds like she’s speaking naturally, just with an unusual post-elocution lessons Boston accent. Portman doesn’t sound so much like an actress struggling with impersonation as a Jackie affecting phoniness, which may work to the film’s ultimate point but could also undercut credibility for those who do remember the actual events. Caspar Phillipson, on the other hand, is an excellent JFK, nailing the likeness better than most, while Peter Sarsgaard is a tad incongruent as Robert Kennedy, and John Carroll Lynch a strange-but-okay choice to be the umpteenth onscreen Lyndon Johnson of the past couple years.
Jackie is not a feel-good movie; if you have any empathy in you, you’ll feel sad at best and terrible at worst. It’s meant to upset, and maybe motivate–at one crucial moment, Jackie refuses to change out of her blood-stained clothes before being seen in public, noting that she wants the political foes who put up angry “wanted” posters with her husband’s face on them to understand what they’ve wrought. After the sheer rage surrounding this last election, it’s not clear we still do.
Images: Fox Searchlight
Luke Y. Thompson is Nerdist’s weekend editor, and a fan of that Tori Amos song about Jackie. Find him on Twitter @LYTrules.