Biopics are a tricky ask. Stick too close to the history books and the end product can be rote or soporific. Stray too far and it feels implausible or revisionist. When it comes to Kennedy, all cinematic paths have already been trod. How do you find anything new to say in exploring the truth of JFK? Jackie considers this dilemma and comes up with an interesting solution: make a film that’s about the struggle to tell history.
Though the film is partly about Jackie Kennedy coming to terms with her husband’s death, it’s really more a study of how people react to momentous events – and how those responses can shape history as much as the events themselves. And it’s about fame too: about how one deals with tragedy whilst in the public eye.
It all starts rather slow and methodical, artifact rather than art. It seems cold, even distant, while Natalie Portman’s performance appears overly mannered and actorly. Once it becomes evident that this is all deliberate, the film is able to hit its stride. It’s a performance within a performance: the Jackie Kennedy who presents herself to the public wants to control how she’s perceived. In the aftermath of her husband’s death, this desire for control quickly leaves her conflicted. How should she grieve? How should she appear to be grieving?
As it transpires, Portman’s performance is excellent, assuredly judging both the public and private aspects of the First Lady’s demeanour. She’s uncannily close to archive footage of Jackie Kennedy when she needs to be, but reaches beyond the public facade to find an honest and nuanced depiction of a regular person repressed by fame.
There isn’t much narrative here at all. Certainly no hints of the intrigue or politics that gripped the nation at the time. The focus is tight, even suffocating. There’s a framing device, in the form of a journalist interviewing Jackie some time after the event, while what story there is takes place in just four days following the assassination. Even this isn’t quite presented linearly and is itself intercut with flashbacks to past events. The constant jumping in time creates a dream-like effect, underpinned by some similarly dreamy cinematography and a fascinating, balletic, almost funereal score that obscures the transitions between scenes.
Chilean director Pablo Larrain has crafted a thoroughly un-American American biopic; indeed, it has more in common with European art-house theatre than Hollywood blockbusters. The theatrical music, the disjointed narrative, the focus on tone and theme rather than plot. None of this makes it better or worse than what has come before, but it certainly makes it more unexpected. By the time the film actually shows us JFK’s death in the final act, we’ve forgotten we were likely to see it: though it marks a form of acceptance for Jackie, its narrative – and graphic – explicitness is a jolt to the audience.
It’s an important reminder of the ugliness of death, and it juxtaposes perfectly with Jackie’s attempts to render it beautiful. She wants so much for her husband to be remembered for his life and his achievements – she wants her response to be majestic and dignified. But ultimately she can’t help but have a very human response to a very human tragedy. In a similar way, though the film may have a chilly exterior, ultimately it finds a soulful intimacy – taken as a whole, it’s thoughtful, moving and rather enchanting.