“Jackie” is a hypnotic descent into Jackie Kennedy’s frame of mind the day of, and the days following, her husband’s assassination. Like most great biopics, it eschews any effort to tell the whole story of the figure’s life, instead focusing singularly on a specific story that can be drawn out of a limited period of time in the figure’s life. Here, that takes the form of a stream-of-consciousness, mesmerising mesh of narratives, presumably those that would have been spinning around in Jackie Kennedy’s head at the time. We spin from multiple moments the day of the assassination, to the White House tour years before, to various moments the days after the assassination, to the funeral itself, and to an interview sometime later, but never in a particularly chronological fashion. It’s all tumbled around, the way a grieving mind flits between memories and the present, the way one loses track of the days and is given to replay moments of trauma over and over in the mind’s eye.
As a purely visceral experience, the film is phenomenal. The handheld cinematography pushes the viewer into Jackie Kennedy’s mindset. When the film isn’t in a close-up of Jackie’s face, it’s in a rare widely framed shot – either Jackie fills the frame and we feel swallowed up in her and her mindset, or the environment fills the frame and we see Jackie swallowed up in it. The film intermixes actual dialogue from recordings of the time, as well as video of the time, most notably that of John F. Kennedy himself, with the actor’s dialogue, but never in a showy way. Everything feels purposeful and crafted for specific purpose, but never in a mechanical or overly-constructed way, instead just in the ways most adept at plunging the viewer into the disorienting mindset of Jackie Kennedy. Emotional bridges are used as the connective tissue between the various layers of time, as Jackie filtering and sorting through the experiences and her reaction becomes the story, rather than the actual events themselves. Helping matters is the stunning score by Mica Levi, full of discordant warbles and unnerving strings. It’s as off-kilter as the cinematography, and perhaps just as instrumental in plunging us into Jackie’s mind.
While the film would be a success just as a visceral tone piece, it reaches for more than that, examining the role of mythology and legacy in grief and history, and how metanarratives are constructed at a national level. The ‘Camelot’ Kennedy mythology is largely superficial, but isn’t that befitting of a nation of such youth? The kitsch mythmaking of America is contextualised here not purely as a show of vanity or arrogance, but as a way to make sense of the chaos and tragedy of a senseless world. The way Jackie Kennedy examines and draws from existing histories and legacies is fascinating, as she constructs a conduit for her grief, but also unwittingly positions herself as a conduit for the grief of the nation. In a similarly metatextual sense, the film itself functions as an artifact conveying American legacy, the same way Jackie did in her efforts with the White House, and in her efforts to cement a lasting legacy for her husband after his assassination. Director Pablo Larraín being Chilean, not American, is possibly vital here, as that layer of disconnection, and not sharing or having personal stake in the Kennedy legacy perhaps enabled him to analyse just what Jackie Kennedy did more in the sense of an artist, a creator, and not as an invested citizen.
Gluing everything together is what’s probably the best performance (or rather, performances) of Natalie Portman’s career. There are many different Jackies, presented in many different situations, and Portman finds the humanity, sense, and depth in all of them. Her work here seems so intuitive as to look effortless, but the significance of what she’s accomplished, and how the entire film needs it, can’t be overstated. Even in the film’s most extraneous scenes, the closest thing the film has to an (unnecessary) framing device, she communicates so much, often with so little, and smooths over the film’s rare descent into more conventional biopic structures.
It’s a magnificent, unnerving film, excelling both as a visceral tone piece, and as a sharp analysis on what connects tragedy and legacy. I give it four and a half antiques, and a parable.