JACKIE * * *
Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and John Hurt. Screenplay by Noah Oppenheim. Directed by Pablo Larrain.
It begins on a black screen with the keening strings of Mica Levi’s score falling precipitously, catching themselves, and then plummeting further – almost an aural equivalent of that pit in your stomach when you get bad news. Director Pablo Larrain’s fragmented, stubbornly artsy-fartsy Jackie keeps the off-kilter, seasick feeling going for most of its slim ninety-nine minutes, which stagger around unstuck in time over a few traumatic weeks like a Slaughterhouse-Five adaptation starring the former First Lady. Though this film is being heavily promoted in the end-of-the-year awards derby, Jackie is defiantly not your mother’s Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis biopic. I’m pretty sure most people are going to hate it.
For starters, there’s not a lot of biographical information in this biopic, which is framed by the recently widowed Jackie’s unpleasant interview with an incredulous magazine reporter (Billy Crudup) and immediately launches into larger themes of tradition, storytelling and legacy. Natalie Portman seems to be laying it on a bit thick at first, super-studiously replicating the subject’s breathy voice and over-elocutions, until you figure out that this is a performance of a woman giving a performance – which is where Portman always excels. (No surprise that her Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky is on board here as a producer. Both films spin the actress’ sometimes crippling self-consciousness into a virtue.) Jackie is only talking to this boor in order to formally present her officially-sanctioned party line about her husband, continually reminding the hack that she’ll be the one editing his piece and stubbing out endless cigarettes while adding, “and I don’t smoke.”
Chilean bad-boy auteur Pablo Larrain is never as interested in the story he’s telling than he is in the stories we need to tell ourselves. His cunningly clever 2013 breakthrough No starred Gael Garcia Bernal as a diet cola pitchman brought in to sell the public on a referendum that eventually freed Chile’s people from Pinochet. Larrain’s soon-to-be released Neruda also stars Bernal, this time as a hilariously self-mythologizing fed on the trail of the iconic Commie poet of the title, both of them so preoccupied with spinning their own legends they barely get anywhere at all. Most foreign directors have to sell out a little bit and play by the rules when they come to America and work with big movie stars, so I was pleasantly shocked to see how much of a Pablo Larrain movie Jackie turned out to be.
“We’ve got to get this right, Bobby” insists Portman to Peter Sarsgaard –probably the least convincing RFK ever seen on film, but hardly a deal-breaker as the movie’s already so woozy and impressionistic. A fair amount of the running time is devoted to them planning Jack’s funeral, not just logistical matters regarding the size and the scale of it, but also deciding what messages must be conveyed. Typical of Larrain films, appearances determine what becomes history. “Brookline is hardly a place to bury the President of the United States,” zings one of the better lines in Noah Oppenheim’s too often on-the-nose screenplay.
But first Jackie needs to figure out how to tell Caroline and John-John why their father isn’t coming home, and then she has to symbolically do the same for the nation. She’s taking on all these responsibilities in a state of unimaginable shock, and the film’s traumatized, shattered structure reaches an early climax when Portman returns to the White House in that iconic pink dress spattered with blood. Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine shoots her endless walk down distorted, wide-angle hallways as if it were an outtake from The Shining, all the precious historical artifacts Jackie painstakingly restored now stretched out as a vulgar taunt, with Levi’s droning, hypnotic music belching flute sounds like emissions from the Close Encounters starship. (What a bizarre, magnificent score!)
Mercifully brief by Awards Season standards, the film still feels like it’s spinning wheels sometimes, spelling out the subtext during a long, unnecessary talk with a priest played by John Hurt. Portman’s performance conveys so much more between the lines than it does when she’s actually reading them (which she’s never been great at) and the insistence on shaky, extreme close-ups for dialogue scenes grows repetitive, not to mention aesthetically ugly.
Much smarter and better-engineered is Larrain continually returning to the First Lady’s 1962 White House tour broadcast, re-staged on old film stock and smeary early television resolution, eventually intercut with the funeral procession and thereafter, reminding us of all the careful ways in which narratives are crafted, and how important and comforting they can be to our visions of ourselves and the world. Jackie Kennedy learned quickly, on the biggest stage imaginable how to become brilliant at playing her part, and she had to get even better when the story turned into a tragedy.