Pablo Larrain’s second film – and biopic – released in 2016 is a study of Jacqueline Kennedy in the short period of time between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and her subsequent departure from the White House to make way for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. Further bookended by two media events – Jackie’s 1961 television tour of the White House, detailing her extensive alterations, and Theodore H. White’s 1963 Life magazine interview at her residence at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts – Noah Oppenheim’s script was originally slated for Darren Aronofsky, but handed to Larrain after Aronofsky (and original lead actress Rachel Weisz) pulled out. While it’s impossible to envisage the version that Aronofsky – who remained on board as a producer – might have made, there’s no question that Larrain has crafted a masterpiece, drawing on his own particular approach to history, forged in his Chilean period pieces, to create one of the most remarkable films I’ve seen in some time.
Of all Larrain’s films, Jackie is perhaps most reminiscent of No, partly because of how emphatically his camera intrudes upon and announces itself in the action. From start to finish, the lens is always just a little too close to Jackie’s face – even, somehow, when it shoots her from a distance – perpetually positioning us just beyond the threshold of personal space at which she might manage to resolve or compose herself into a stately posture. Given her own background in journalism, Jackie herself continually articulates that sense of breached privacy, to the point where Larrain’s camera often feels complicit – or acknowledges the inevitability of its own complicity – in all the media outlets that appear to have been so debilitating to her at this particular moment. As if to dodge that complicity as much as possible, however, Jackie never settles into a fixed or stable style with regards to the past either, refusing both the illusion of total historical recreation as well as the comforts of a more straightforwardly contemporary atmosphere. That’s only enhanced by Mica Levi’s off-kilter ceremonial score, easily as good as her work on Under the Skin, which creates a decentred and elliptical sense of grandiosity in which Jackie finds herself continually wandering amidst pockets of people who are only half-attuned to her existence. Like an atonal riff on classical film scores, Levi opts for two key themes – an awry dirge and a sinking, sliding, almost synthetic collapse of strings – that displace Jackie from the events they commemorate at the very moment at which they commemorate them.
In other words, Jackie never settles into the conventional middle distance of historical hindsight, as long shots of Jackie surrounded by indifferent and irregular clumps of people alternate with visceral and extreme close-ups of her face, or blurred and off-centred “photographic” compositions. In the process, Larrain refuses to offer either an “authentic” unmediated Jackie nor a perfected media profile – or to alternate between the two as might occurs in a less ambitious film. Even as everyone around her seems to be able separate present from past at the very moment the assassination occurs, Jackie’s own version of events seems to be playing in a melancholy diffuseness between past and present, setting her on a kind of alternative timeline that progressively dissociates her from her own image, leaving her to drift amongst the jagged discontinuities of fresh and extreme grief.
In that sense, Jackie plays as an account of post-traumatic shock, just as Jackie herself seems to be experiencing something like a temporary psychosis across the course of the film’s brief timespan. At the very least, Larrain and Oppenheim seem prescient that the notion of a First Lady without a President is inherently psychotic, especially at this point in time, with some of the most incredible scenes simply following Jackie as she wanders amidst her half packed-up rooms and possessions during her last few days at the White House. Too raw to offer any definitive position on either Kennedy’s successes or shortcomings, or to decide how much to extricate herself from the Kennedy mythology, she inhabits a strange space in which even memory hasn’t yet had the chance to stabilise, responding to the well-meaning advice to “Take comfort in those memories” with “I can’t – they’re mixed up with all the others.” Nowhere is that displacement of present and past clearer than in the shocking images depicting the aftermath of the assassination, especially the progress of the motorcade as it drives through Dallas on the way to the hospital. Scattered throughout the narrative but mainly left to the final scenes, these are so traumatic that they can barely be watched, like an event that is overtaken at the very moment it is happening an even more horrific pre-emptive memory of the event, and the prospective horror of living with that memory indefinitely.
Of course, it’s also at these moments that Portman really shines, brilliantly capturing Jackie’s voices, gestures and mannerisms, but, above and beyond that, a certain ineffable brittleness – part gait, part stance, part bearing – that makes her bristle as soon as anyone tries to put words in her mouth or assume anything about her utterances. In fact, for the great majority of the film, her dialogue – if it can even be called that – is largely dissociative, deflective and disjunctive, turning her Life interview into a kind of talking cure, as she gradually wrests with a way to narrativise the situation. Bit by bit, as the interview proceeds, she rehearses with different ways of containing her grief, building some sense of coherence even as she acknowledges that it’s a provisional, temporary measure as well. As might be imagined, that makes it hard to tell if she is talking to herself or to the interviewer, while it’s poetically apposite that it’s only during this process of contriving some kind of meaning out of the past that she lights upon Camelot as the most convenient image to describe the Kennedy administration.
As if to capture that psychotic reaching for a language and coherence that isn’t there, Larrain’s style also becomes both more unified and more jagged as the film draws towards its conclusion. On the one hand, the alternation between different types and qualities of image becomes more fluid, but at the same time the source and province of images becomes more ambiguous. In the latter third, in particular, it feels as if archival footage is introduced subliminally and rapidly even as news footage styled imagery appears from perspectives that couldn’t have possibly housed news cameras. Combined with the aspect ratio of 1:66 – never quite square or rectangular enough – there’s a refusal to close or cordon off historical trauma that feels particularly indebted to Larrain’s depictions of Chilean history. As Gilles Deleuze pointed out in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, one of the defining features of American cinema is a preoccupation with period drama elevated to mythology. That doesn’t mean, of course, that every American period film is necessarily framed mythologically, but that American period film tends to work by presuming the kind of magnificent closure of history that occur in mythological texts and narratives. Leaving Jackie, and her legacy, so open, may therefore be quite a profoundly unAmerican gesture on Larrain’s part, but it’s perhaps just what was needed to estrange us from her story, and to create such a powerful and pregnant masterpiece.