The Films of 2016: Jackie

Those seeking something more adventurous than the typical Hollywood biopic would do well to check out Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, which has the outward trappings of an Oscar-bait vehicle for Natalie Portman but which is actually a sensuous and disorienting exercise in atmosphere.  This is Larrain’s first English-language film; up to this point his reputation has rested on films made in his native Chile about life under Pinochet.  Jackie, a character study of Jackie Kennedy in the days following her husband’s assassination, is itself a political film.  But its political contours are less interesting than how it’s been mounted and framed by Larrain’s camerawork, Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography, Mica Levi’s score, and Sebastian Sepulveda’s editing.  And by Portman, whose performance, while mannered, conveys the raw desperation of a woman reeling from grief and shock. 

Watching Jackie I wasn’t paying much attention to what points it may be trying to make about the Kennedy dynasty or the role of the first lady or the political theater of JFK’s funeral (the co-ordination of this last of which drives what little plot there is in the film).  Instead I was paying attention to Larrain’s constantly roving camera as it swirls around Portman, frequently pressing in on her face in close-up, or drifting away to regard the faces of those around her with a suspicion that feels almost paranoid.  Larrain’s nervous handheld camera, and the way it makes his actors look both grotesque and beautiful, reminded me of Roman Polanski’s early films, in which the camera always seems to be bobbing up unnervingly into the faces of the actors.  Jackie is in some ways reminiscent of something like Polanski’s Repulsion, in that the restless texture of the filmmaking comes to resemble the shattered psyche of its heroine.  In other, more elegantly composed sequences—such as a montage scene in which Jackie gets drunk and puts on all of her finest evening clothes and wanders through the rooms of the White House like a child playing make-believe—the camera keeps her at more of a distance.  But the effect is no less intoxicating.  I could have watched Larrain’s camera trail Portman through those rooms for another hour.

Jackie is far from perfect; I winced every time it cut back to a clumsy and obvious framing device in which Jackie, sitting for an interview at her home in Hyannis Port, taunts her interviewer.  (These scenes look as if they have come from, and belong to, an entirely different movie; one can’t help but wonder whether they were demanded by a studio executive hoping to impose some sort of narrative order on what is otherwise a film almost as willfully formless as something by Terrence Malick.)  The film also belabors its invocation of the “Camelot” mythology that has always been associated with the Kennedys; I smiled when, during her bender, Jackie put the Lerner and Loewe cast album on the record player, but I grimaced later when she quoted—however tongue-in-cheek—the lines of the title song, and then went on to explicate them in her own words, in case we hadn’t gotten the point: “There will never be another Camelot.”  It's possible to interpret such moments as Jackie's attempt to shape, very calculatingly and shrewdly, her husband's legacy--to impose on it a mythic narrative.  In any case, most of the weaknesses present in Noah Oppenheimer’s script are blessedly drowned out (sometimes literally) by Mica Levi’s chilling, mysterious score, which almost more than any other single element in the film is responsible for creating its powerful sense of unease.  Where Jackie fails as a movie whenever it tries to be “about” anything, it succeeds tremendously at (re)creating a world that is as beautiful as it is frightening—and pulling us into it head first.   

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