By Kaia Kryda
Pablo Larraín’s film is a portrait of the most iconic American First Lady of the 20th century, Jacqueline Kennedy, in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination. It is not a typical biopic – but then this story of a personal apocalypse couldn’t have been told in any typical way.
As JFK’s wife, Jackie was known for her sense of style and impeccable manners – then suddenly, on 22nd of November 1963 her poised image got marked with gore. There wasn’t anything regular about her ordeal: nothing could have prepared her for having her husband shot next to her, being covered in his blood, or holding his lifeless, fractured head together in a 6-minute ride to the hospital that possibly felt like a lifetime – and all that while the whole world was watching.
Acknowledging the singularity and loneliness of her trauma, Larraín paints Jackie’s portrait with an astounding level of empathic insight. The film’s screenwriter, Noah Oppenheim, captures her story in a non-chronological, impressionistic narrative – which yet has an emotional impact that’s clear and acute. Natalie Portman in the titular role gives a flawless, intense performance, superbly imitating Jackie’s unique manner of speaking: a finishing-school-taught transatlantic accent with a detectable Long Island twang. Larraín admits he was adamant he can only make Jackie with Portman as the lead, and insisted on her being present in every scene of the picture. It paid off, as one of his film’s main strengths lies in the fact it doesn’t shy away from subjectivity, and Portman’s talent and skill shine in this intensified spotlight. Accompanying her performance, and guiding us through Jackie’s layered pain, is the entrancing soundtrack by Mica Levi, combining Wagner-esque gravity with perfectly measured dissonances – like Jackie’s grief, grand and total, but also manic; showing glimpses of insanity.
Shot on grainy 16mm footage, Larraín’s picture is a nostalgic window into a specific time in history. But it also feels very current in the way it both reveres and challenges Jackie’s image, dissecting her emotions up close. It takes liberties in interpreting the behind-closed-door events, but certain public ones it recreates mimetically – namely the televised White House tour, reminding us who Jackie was to the people: perfect hostess, style icon, embodiment of aspirations. However, it also shows her vulnerable in the spotlight (a nuance Portman so well captured in her act), smiling nervously and answering questions with child-like earnestness.
Jackie is often framed as a solitary spot of colour in a monochrome sea of suits, inhabited by men who didn’t treat her seriously. “I know you think I’m just some debutante”, she screams at Bobby Kennedy (poignant performance by Peter Sarsgaard) when she finds he’s been keeping things from her. Another time, she mentions her late husband talking about her “vanity projects”, while to her, endeavors such as the White House restoration were anything but trivial. Jackie in the film puts all her energy in preserving the symbolic power of a legacy she represents as First Lady, and despite her determination, she appears to feel lonely and misunderstood in her efforts. The only person she seems at ease with is her friend Nancy, played by Greta Gerwig, who portrays Jackie’s confidante’s loyalty with endearing genuineness.
Larraín’s film is intentionally ambiguous in its approach to its heroine, painting a picture that’s as eulogizing as it is iconoclastic. As we see widowed Jackie frantically planning the funeral, or walking around the empty White House, numbed by pills and alcohol, it isn’t clear whether it’s the death of her husband she’s lamenting or the end of an era she’s played a central part in. JFK’s assassination shattered her private life, but also the tenets of her masterfully constructed public image, which she’s at times put it in front of her own identity. It quickly becomes obvious that what we’re witnessing is not just grief; it’s a furious act of rebranding. And as we watch the over-the-top funeral procession, it’s hard not to ask ourselves whether it was mad, or infinitely wise of Jackie to offer the world this last, cathartic performance.