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.