Jackie, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s English-language debut starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy, boasts a commonly used framing device – but there’s nothing familiar about Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim’s treatment of their iconic subject.
Structured around Theodore H White’s Life magazine interview at Hyannis Port a mere week after the assassination of her husband John F Kennedy, Jackie unfurls in a mosaic-like manner, tracking only the brief but definitive period in her life while still managing to cover a lot of ground. The narrative doesn’t just move back and forth between the tragic day in Dallas, the arranging of the president’s funeral, her time spent accompanying her husband’s coffin to Arlington cemetery, and her earlier time in the White House – it often swirls, whirling the series of events together into a dizzying whole.
Larraín has never told a true story in a predictable manner (he took a metafictional approach in his portrait of celebrated poet and politician Pablo Neruda in his last film, Neruda), and he doesn’t here. Coupled with a bold narrative approach, that’s bound to turn off some viewers, Larraín drowns his film with a cacophonous score by Under the Skin composer Mica Levi that burrows uncomfortably deep. He also shoots in grainy 16mm, often in severe closeup, lending Jackie an uncommonly raw quality for a biopic of its nature.
Portman is altogether astonishing in the role. Apart from sharing a wide smile, she doesn’t much resemble Kennedy. She is however gifted with an overpowering beauty – much like the real-life figure – that Larraín makes great use of in key scenes to illustrate the galvanising effect Kennedy had on those around her. Most importantly, Portman thoroughly nails Kennedy’s breathy and docile-sounding voice, without letting the affectations get the better of her. Her accent doesn’t define her portrayal – it infuses it with a tenacious vitality.
As written by Oppenheim, Kennedy is a wonderfully complex character, bursting at the seams with contradictions. During her long interview with White, she’s portrayed as both testy (“Are you giving me professional advice?,” she challenges after he makes the mistake of suggesting she’d do well in broadcast journalism), and extremely vulnerable (describing her husband’s murder shatters her guard). In flashbacks to happier days spent getting acquainted with her duties at the White House, Kennedy is timid and inquisitive.
What grounds Portman’s take, however, is a key sequence immediately following the assassination that sees Kennedy shower her husband’s blood off her hair, struggle to rip off her crimson-stained pantyhose, and then finally, lie in bed alone. The intimate access is wrenching in its matter-of-factness.
Despite Jackie’s autumn festival placement (it world premiered at Venice, and is currently screening in Toronto), typically reserved for Oscar hopefuls, Larraín’s character study doesn’t play into that narrative. It’s a singular vision from an uncompromising director that happens to be about one of the most famous women in American history. Jackie is not Oscar bait – it’s great cinema.