Does a picture really paint a thousand words? When something is written down, does that make it true? With an increasingly spellbinding command of cinema’s visual language and capability, placing him firmly in the rarefied air of the most gifted filmmakers of our time, Chilean director Pablo Larraín muses upon these ideas in new offering Jackie, sifting them with an unwavering hand through one of the most horrific events of the 20th century. The latter suggestion is one of many proffered by Jacqueline Kennedy as she is faced with a journalist’s questions just seven days after her husband’s assassination, and a global public baying for her first-hand account of what transpired in Dealey Plaza that fateful November 1963 morning.
Our perception of a tragedy that marked a U-turn in American history comes through the eyes of Natalie Portman. They burn; they fill with tears; they flicker with anger, guilt, grief, incomprehension. Her regard alone speaks many, many thousands of words, emotions and the sense of pure disbelief that was shared by an entire nation. Working from his first English language script, by Noah Oppenheim, Larraín’s film is produced by Darren Aronofsky, who directed Portman to an Oscar-winning role in Black Swan, and her performance here is equally sublime. Framing her in almost every shot of the film, long-time Jacques Audiard collaborator Stéphane Fontaine compliments Larraín’s visionary storytelling with close-ups, front-on placings and a roaming camera that vacillates nervously between compassionate attentiveness and uncomfortable intrusion. Do we have the right to watch Jackie Kennedy telling her children that their father has died? “How do I do this?” she implores. How would any mother? Should we be present as she wipes blood from her face and hair, and removes a bright pink suit stained red?
“History is harsh,” Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) will say later in the film. Larraín is not afraid to show us this from a deeply personal point of view. As the aforementioned journalist, Billy Crudup treads a similar line to Fontaine’s cautious, tentative but daring camerawork. Caught between his desire to scoop the story of the century and an awareness of speaking to a woman in the throes of post traumatic stress, he occasionally pushes his luck but it remains clear who is driving this interview. Remembered snippets of a past now without future swing in a centrifugal orbit around this conversation and are sewn into the fabric of the film so impeccably that time and place, in a literal, linear sense, is rendered obsolete. Behind Portman’s eyes is a grieving, crushed mind and it is here that Jackie transpires.
Whereas elsewhere she exudes strong-willed, defiant eloquence – in delivery and action, both before and after the assassination – when in front of TV cameras for her famous White House Tour, Jackie’s purposeful, more considered approach is delightfully incongruous. Each and every element of the film’s construction, performance and direction is in perfect sync with the next and the downgrading of sound and image – to a squared-off aspect in black and white – for these moments is flawless. Further, never before has the transition of action to library footage been so seamless; editor Sebastián Sepúlveda, who worked with Larraín on The Club, is due a tremendous amount of credit for what is incredible work.
Some may find the score of Mica Levi (Under the Skin) overbearing, but the fact that it both enhances emotion and distracts to some degree is perfectly in line with a woman whose fragmented state of mind at times borders on the catatonic. In light of what occurs, it is apt that music which once held beauty becomes grating, discordant and at times as jagged as broken glass. Although the ideals of a new Camelot may be a distant dream in the dire circumstances of 2017, Jackie breathes life, hope, blood, sweat and tears into despair, forcing us to plough forward, reminding us that legacy is not determined by the manner in which we depart this world, but by the way we treat others whilst we are here.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens