Milo Garner takes a look at Pablo Larraín’s unusual biopic, Jackie.
Jackie, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s first English language film, is ostensibly a biopic concerning one of America’s best known First Ladies. But in practice it subverts the biopic form and instead offers something far more interesting, a mood-piece centred on the prime trauma of Jackie’s life.
Even the structure of the film forgoes the sense of chronology typical in biopics. It opens with Jackie (Natalie Portman) being interviewed by an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup); while this would generally signal a sort of frame narrative following Jackie’s recounting of events, it is actually one of several different time frames examined without direct links to one another. Others include a televised tour of the White House given by Jackie some time before JFK’s assassination, another the incident and its direct aftermath, and another a talk with a priest (John Hurt) after the funeral. These threads all intermingle throughout the film, sometimes linking thematically, which does a good job of contextualising Jackie’s comments, sometimes seeming a little more erratic, flinging the audience back and forth without much evident reasoning, causing some needless disorientation and confusion at times. That isn’t to say that the fractured narrative doesn’t work, only that sometimes it could be a little more measured.
The formal aspects of Jackie are unusual too. Starting with the camera, it stays on Jackie for near the entirety of the film, favouring medium and close handheld shots with a thin depth of field. This puts incredible emphasis on Portman’s performance, which is deserving of such attention, and encapsulates one of the main themes of the film – this is JFK’s assassination and aftermath through Jackie’s eyes. This means that, beyond simply following Jackie’s story as an untold parallel to other aspects of JFK’s murder, we are given a far more intimate retelling of the events. Often Jackie’s feelings are put across exclusively by Portman’s facial acting, or in a few moments in her walk, and these emotions can be weighed against the actual lines she speaks, which sometimes (and intentionally) don’t quite align. However, there are moments when this close camera style is abandoned for some wider, and very impressive centred compositions, whose symmetry and precision are an indulgence for the eye. One particular shot that comes to mind is shortly after JFK’s assassination, where the camera follows the Presidential limo and cranes over it as Jackie is covered by a Secret Service agent to protect her from potential further risk – it isn’t a complex manoeuvre, but is an aesthetic delight nonetheless. Another interesting feature is the use of stock footage in the film – Stéphane Fontaine’s 16mm camera allows the grainy historical images to be cut in without being contrasting too heavily, and rather than break immersion they offer the film an interesting feeling of verisimilitude. The most original use of this technique is during a certain scene where Jackie peers from her car’s window, and the reflections of the crowd visible on the glass are actually superimposed from the actual event – a curious mix of fiction and documentary.
With this unique camera also comes a score most unlike what would be expected (a running theme with this film), one written by Mica Levi of Micachu & the Shapes fame. Minimal, both in composition and application, the score is primarily constructed through the use of strings and repeated leitmotifs, often climaxing with a sudden descending swell and always in the minor key. Like the narrative structure the music is dissonant and quite unnerving, but manages enormous emotional impact and is in fact one of the most important factors to the film’s success. And it’s not just the OST – other music features, notably Richard Burton’s Camelot, from the musical of the same name. This particular tune appears a few times in the film, and with its playful charm being juxtaposed by the generally unsettled events on screen it often comes out as more haunting than it does on Broadway. Jackie quotes from it to her interviewer: ‘for one brief, shining moment, there was a Camelot.’ By this she is suggesting, or rather spinning for the media, that JFK’s ‘reign’ was a great one, and one that cannot be repeated. The film spends a long time trying to display how Jackie pained over creating a legacy for Kennedy, though one that he might not have deserved; she ensures his funeral includes a large procession comparable to Lincoln, even if he didn’t achieve anything near to freeing the slaves. This point is taken head on in a scene where JFK’s brother (Peter Sarsgaard) laments that they could have done so much more if they hadn’t have been so caught up in the politics of it all. Though Jackie rebukes him for saying so, it is slowly revealed she acts often for herself in creating a legend for JFK, rather than in memory of her husband. Jackie’s nous for public image is indomitable, and it’s fascinating to see her turn her public persona on and off.
One particular sequence that is very much focused on Jackie’s earnest feelings in contrast to this is her interaction with the priest – one of three characters with a meaningful amount of lines, the others being her interviewer, with whom she plays a game of political posturing, and her brother-in-law, who functions as her closest adult family in the film. That they’re all men also represents, quite literally, the male dominated world she finds herself in. With the priest Jackie discusses her more metaphysical worries, not only concerning her late husband, but also herself, why she should keep on despite such tragedies that she has suffered. The scenes here play out in an almost Malickian manner, with the close camera tracking the two as they wonder through a wooded idyll, discussing high minded ideas. This strays from cliché, however, as the priest in question doesn’t roll out the classic moral platitudes expected from churchmen in these situations but instead offers a comparatively radical standpoint. He tells Jackie that, like her, he sometimes doubts his purpose and purpose in general, that the grief might not heal, and that there are many of her questions that just cannot be answered (regardless of God). His honesty, delivered excellently by an assiduous John Hurt, seemingly does more to sooth Jackie than a more traditional line might have, and their conversation works as the most direct line into Jackie’s thoughts across the various other strands in the film.
Overall, Jackie is an unusual film – a mainstream biopic given an arthouse makeover – but a film whose various parts manage to come together surprisingly well. It isn’t without problems, like a narrative structure that is occasionally too fractious, but by and large performs more than sufficiently as a look into the mind and mood of Jackie Kennedy during that fateful time in her life.
Featured Image: flickr