Grief, at least on this planet, spares no one. Not even a magnificently bejewelled, bouffant-haired, Chanel-coutured First Lady of the United States, who is naturally expected to project impeccable poise and delicate self-control in the public eye. Which makes it more traumatising that even the most gracefully composed of our historical figures can suffer the discombobulating blows of grief, let alone us mere nobodies who won’t have any opportunity of grand eulogizing. Chilean director Pablo Larraín Jackie is a testament to this, peeling layers upon layers of put-upon elegance and affectation through a breathtakingly discordant narrative to unmask the Jackie Kennedy behind that persona, those pearls, that mannerism – and reveal a dichotomy of a grieving widow and a master image technician.
Less a biopic and more of an intensely focused character study, Noah Oppenheim’s shrewdly structured screenplay and in turn, Larraín’s idiosyncratic direction scrutinise the First Lady’s aria of sorrow directly after JFK’s assassination right up to the funeral, even going so far as methodically portraying what it’s like to organise the head of state’s burial. Beat by beat, this Jackie avoids the lazy pitfalls of biopic-making and instead artfully crafts a jigsaw narrative, breaking an entire week’s chronology of trauma and grief into shards, which makes it, well, shattering. Sure, Larraín ensures exquisite period detail, pitch-perfect reconstructions and even filming in 35 and 16mm to achieve stunning era verisimilitude, but it’s the structural fragmentation that gives the Jackie its depth, its discord and emotionality, as if the film is constantly flicking through memories in search for an answer or meaning.
Larraín peels layers upon layers of put-upon elegance and affectation through a breathtakingly discordant narrative to unmask the Jackie Kennedy behind that persona, those pearls, that mannerism – and reveal a dichotomy of a grieving widow and a master image technician.
And then, of course, there’s Natalie Portman’s performance. It’s no easy feat to capture Jacqueline Kennedy’s elaborate, if not a little feigned, manner of speaking (if you don’t believe it, go see Jackie and then see the real White House tour by the woman herself), but Portman doesn’t only nail Jackie’s breathy elocution but goes far beyond mimicry. This could have easily tipped over into the territory of overblown hysterics, but Portman is protean – by turns cold, fierce, vulnerable, calculating and sometimes vindictive, showing Jackie through a stunning prism of emotions from being a heartbroken widow on a verge of a breakdown to a woman pulling her shit together, attaining that renowned composure for the world to see. We see Jackie swanning around the White House, drunk on straight vodka, desperately figuring out what clothes to wear, and then later on ferociously refusing to get in an armoured car during the funeral march, adamant that the world sees the price of this tragedy.
It’s a bold thesis that Jackie Kennedy, despite her private torture and ordeal, is a performance, and Portman’s multi-layered acting reveals that. This woman understands that American politics is also Great Theatre, where its players play privy to their audience, forever manipulating truth per se to attain a grander truth. Jackie the Widow, perennially sucking on Camel cigarettes whilst claiming she doesn’t smoke, seems to be on the edge of madness, but she never forgets her capacity to operate the creation of the Kennedy’s self-styled legacy, ensuring that the world hears what they want to hear, even if she doesn’t get the answers she desperately deserves inside. That while the world crumbles, this tragically flawed woman instils a perfect Camelot myth to the public, while Larraín’s film is busy deconstructing that myth (to the tune of Mica Levi’s broodingly surreal score) to lament the demise of the Grand American Dream.