Blackness. Orchestral strings rise up magisterially but sink almost immediately in discord; the wooziest of dying falls.
A beautiful woman, resplendent in pink, with jet-black bouffant hair, porcelain hair, and cheekbones to shame Bette Davis, coolly applies her makeup in an airplane mirror. Soon we will watch her anguishedly wipe blood from her face in that same mirror — her husband’s blood; the blood of John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States.
The third film this year from Chilean director Pablo Larraín, his first in the English language, Jackie approaches the events surrounding his assassination, perhaps the most scrutinized event in US history, via a figure we consider with surprising infrequency: that of JFK’s widow, Jacqueline Bouvier AKA Jackie Kennedy, played here by Natalie Portman.
From Jackie’s expensive tastes, which she laid bare in a simpering tour of CBS through the White House — “the people’s house” — to her chilling refusal to change out of her blood-stained clothes in the aftermath of the shooting (“Let them see what they’ve done”), the film creates tension in juxtaposing what the public see — and saw — with what goes on just out of shot. A kindly acknowledgement from Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) as he is sworn in aboard Air Force One can’t hide the fact, at least to us, that Jackie is already, however necessarily, being ushered aside.
The King is dead and with the myth of Camelot not yet ensconced in the American consciousness — as Noah Oppenheim’s careful script reminds us, Kennedy was to many a divisive President — it falls to the still-grieving Jackie to ensure her husband’s legacy.
To this extent, the film makes use of multiple framing devices — the guided tour, her conversations a later interview with a reporter from Life (played by Billy Crudup) at the remote manor house in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, to which she and the children retreated after Jack’s death.
Portman’s Jackie is at once both in control and powerless, sultry and sexless, perfectly poised and yet utterly shattered, the contradictions within her are almost unbearable. After tearfully describing her husband’s final moments — the gunshot, his brain matter, the expression on his face — she coolly, almost smugly, lights up a cigarette: “Don’t think for one second I’m going to let you publish that.” She won’t even let him mention her smoking.
Jackie is a film obsessed with objects, with how things look and feel. The sprawling East Room of the White House, with its cream-colored drapes and parquet floors, becomes almost a proxy for Jackie herself. In one scene it plays host to a crowded classical performance, which Jackie receives rapturously. In another, we see it empty apart from a single white coffin. Even as her husband threatens to become just another oil painting lining the hallways, so Jackie seizes upon the simplest thing — a line from an old musical — as a way to mythologize the man she adored.
An embittered Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) laments what might have been while cruelly ridiculing their grand aspirations — “Look at you. We’re ridiculous”. To him the Kennedy clan has become the beautiful and the damned. As Jackie strides through the frosty mist, between seemingly endless pristine rows of tombstones at Arlington, the impression is that of a woman imbued with a precarious purpose, forging her way through purgatory.
As Jackie confides to an Irish priest (John Hurt, on weary yet humorful form), she’s ready to go, to die, and be with the man she loves; no matter his flaws, to which the film freely, if obscurely, admits. Where Jackie is icy, color-coordinated refinement, JFK (Caspar Phillipson) is a tanned, healthy presence, whose death triggers a deeply personal, very tasteful apocalypse.
Filmed on Super 16mm, Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography ably recreates the look of the era, crisp and sharp. Given his output this past year, Larraín is undoubtedly a director at the height of his powers. Jackie shows us the artificial veneer of respectability over the unfathomable depths of ambition and grief.