If an extraterrestrial civilisation had intercepted transmissions of the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Jacqueline Kennedy’s public reaction, and then decided to make a film about it, the result would probably resemble Pablo Larraín’s Jackie. There is a bizarre, simulated feel to the film, a surreal quality that posits these events, not as a true story, but as a reconstruction of a true story, divorced from any cultural context or understanding of human emotion. That’s not to say that Jackie is a bad film. Just a very strange one.
Natalie Portman portrays Jacqueline Kennedy, and it is a remarkable performance. Portman reveals a talent for the chameleonic; her voice and mannerisms approach the uncanny, they are so close to the mark. What is truly extraordinary, however, is that Portman isn’t just playing Jackie. She is playing Jackie playing a complicated composite of all the qualities Jackie believes a First Lady should display. Portman plays Jackie as a woman attempting to control the world around her in an attempt to present the best version of herself, or perhaps the version she thinks the public wants to see.
This manipulation comes to the fore in the film’s framing device, an interview with an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) some time after her husband’s funeral. Jackie tells the journalist at the outset that she will be “editing” the conversation, constructing her own version of events. This is a very constructed film. Great care has been taken to make this a down-to-the-bone period piece. Jackie looks like a film shot in the 1960s. Everything – the aspect ratio, the lighting, the colours, even the film stock – work together to exquisitely evoke the era.
It is a tremendous cinematic feat, but it comes with a caveat. This is filmmaking of an acutely self-aware variety, and that makes it difficult to discern any kind of honest emotion. The editing has a stream-of-consciousness quality to it, as scenes flit restlessly back and forth in time. Larraín’s Mrs. Kennedy might have a character arc, she might grow as a person over the course of the film, but it is difficult to tell amid the narrative jumble. There may be, somewhere deep inside the film, something resembling true human emotion, but if there is, it is buried deep under an, admittedly impressive, style.
It may sound strange, but I was put in mind more of J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition than any conventional biopic. It may just be the intersection of Jacqueline Kennedy, the découpé narrative, and the slightly skewed interpretation of human interaction, but there is something indelibly alien about Jackie. I don’t think it’s a film about Jacqueline Kennedy at all. It’s a film about the idea of Jacqueline Kennedy. Whose idea that is, though, I’m not entirely sure.