**** out of ****
(for brief strong violence and some strong language)
Released: December 2, 2016 limited; expands through December and January
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Pablo Larraín
Starring: Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt
Ranked #2 on My Top 10 List For 2016
We’ve never seen a biopic quite like Jackie before. In fact, we’ve probably never seen a movie quite like Jackie before. It would fit as naturally on the walls of an art gallery as it would the screens of a cineplex, maybe even more so, and is as penetrating as a Vulcan mind meld.
Natalie Portman is transcendent – nay, transcendental – in a performance far more transformative than the surface affectations of look, voice, and persona (though each are preternaturally convincing in their own right). Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín aims for (and succeeds at) painting a psychological portrait over a biographical one, more pensive than narrative, and approaches his cinematic canvas with an eye for expressionism, not literalism. A potent collaboration between director and actress, it lays bare a Jacqueline Kennedy shaken to her core, and ours becomes shaken as well.
Biopics have long followed a “cradle to grave” tradition of notable highlights, but recently there’s been an exciting trend to focus on one key event that defined a person (the recent Selma being a superior example). Larraín and Portman start with the latter approach but then elevate it to something else entirely.
Jackie is more than an historical account of the days following the assassination of JFK, and goes even deeper than a personal point of view; it’s a singular immersion into the fragile psyche of an iconic figure in the immediate aftermath of an American tragedy, one brutally perpetrated on her husband as she witnessed it at point blank range.
Perhaps the most telling (and daring) choice by Larraín is to avoid any use of First Person voiceover. That device would be a natural fit here, even effective (taking a cue from Terrence Malick), but somehow Larraín and Portman achieve the same depth of connection, understanding, and revelation as what would normally be required of a contemplative internal monologue.
Instead, Larraín restricts himself to cinematic language and technique alone – image, tone, structure, music, sounds, but not thoughts – to get us inside Jackie’s head, heart, and soul. Portman is the Method-level avatar through which Larraín’s aesthetic comes alive, grieves, and resonates.
He frames it all with a one-on-one interview between Jackie and a Life Magazine reporter (Billy Crudup, vital to this film’s success in less obvious ways). It’s a contrivance that suits the flow of flashbacks, but Larraín enhances that structure with how he shoots the two subjects during the interview: in straight-on close-ups that flirt with breaking the fourth wall.
Each makes virtual eye contact with us, the audience, and in doing so takes us beyond being mere “fly on the wall” observers to subconsciously feeling as if we’re now part of the actual conversation, invited in and included.
(Interestingly, according to Crudup, this whole interview device wasn’t even conceived until nearly all filming of the original script had been completed. Crudup was then brought onboard afterward to shoot these new scenes, further emphasizing how Larraín was sculpting this movie intuitively all along the way, and not according to set rules or a formula.)
From there, the not-always-linear flashbacks to events before, after, and during the Kennedy assassination are not told from multiple perspectives, or fleshed out through subplots. Everyone and everything exists through the lens of the First Lady’s traumatic haze, and they’re compiled according to psychology, not chronology.
Augmenting this surreality to full-on psychodrama is composer Mica Levi’s beautiful, eerie, and mesmerizing score. It doesn’t reflect the story so much as Jackie’s id, or her mournful soul, and is a specific extension of Portman’s performance. The violins and cellos are often as queasy as her insides, while the broader score embodies her elegance. Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s camera often hovers behind or floats beside Portman like a silent voyeur, as if we’re watching her at times when we shouldn’t be.
These elements, combined with Véronique Melery’s detailed sets and Madeline Fontaine’s superb costumes, make for an artistic rendering that seamlessly matches archival footage. (It was shot on 16mm film rather than digital, an absolutely vital decision). In fact, it’s the actual replication of news archives that sells Portman’s makeover.
Initially it’s such an extreme adjustment to hear her as Jackie that it’s hard to buy. But once its set in black-and-white news reels of White House tours and the like, Portman’s transformation becomes complete. With eyes closed (and even open), these scenes could pass as authentic recordings of the real thing.
Jackie is a broken woman, but resolute in being a staunch defender of her husband’s memory, Presidency, and legacy, both in private musings as well as conversations with her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard). She’s grateful for Jack’s loyalty and is compelled to reciprocate it in the wake of his death, yet she’s far from naïve to her husband’s moral shortcomings. These events tear open old personal wounds anew, along with those of other losses. Past betrayals and tragedies must be privately grieved again, particularly as they’ll now never be resolved.
People may have taken Jacqueline Kennedy for the demure fool, even some top White House aides, but she refused to be played as one. This whole swirl of mixed, conflicting, and co-existing emotions ends up making for a complex portrait of not only the First Lady but of the 35th President.
Some of the film’s most poignant scenes come in Jackie’s conversations with, and confessions to, a priest (John Hurt) as she tries to work through all of her anxieties, doubts, and emotions; the counsel he provides is comforting yet substantial, not shallow. These moments, along with the interview, are what get us inside her head; being dramatized rather than narrated proves much more powerful.
They are also reflective of one of the film’s primary virtues: despite having the most beloved First Lady of modern times as his subject, director Pablo Larraín decisively refuses to peddle in sentimentality.
Rarely has a dramatic historical recreation seemed so authentic yet so hypnotically poetic. Intimately told but intensely wrought, Jackie is an introspective form of melodrama I never thought was possible.