With his first English-language feature, Chilean director Pablo Larraín ("No," "Neruda") mixes historical drama, character study, and moody tone poem with just a touch of camp in "Jackie," the filmmaker's intricate and enigmatic portrait of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
Examining the subjects of celebrity, politics, and the process of constructing history, the film isn't exactly a biopic. Its scope is narrow, focusing on three specific points in Jackie's brief time as First Lady of the United States: the filming of her 1962 televised White House tour, the immediate aftermath of her husband's assassination, and her interview with a reporter from Life Magazine just one week later. Cutting between these three strands, Larraín shows us how Jackie (Natalie Portman, in a remarkable, nuanced performance) engaged in her own form of myth-making, taking charge of the historical narrative and working to forever ensure the legacy of John F. Kennedy.
Though hardly a rose-colored depiction, you can sense the admiration Larraín and writer Noah Oppenheim (previously most well-known for his adaptations of dystopian YA novels "Allegiant" and "The Maze Runner") have for their subject. Her world has suddenly cracked open, but Jackie remains shrewdly pragmatic. Whether for her own vanity or for the sheer desire to regain a sense of purpose, she makes lavish funeral arrangements, allowing the world to share her family's grief in the most public way possible.
The film isn't subtle, often having characters explicitly reiterate its major themes — especially during the interview segments — but then, the Kennedys weren't a people known for their subtlety.
As a woman in the public eye, Jacqueline was someone constantly aware of the image she was projecting, and Portman's layered performance captures the sharp contrast between the private and the public persona. Her acting can feel mannered at times, but intentionally so: Jackie herself is always performing. There's a distinct difference between what she allows the reporter to see, how she behaves in front of White House staffers, and when she's confiding in her closest friend and longtime aide (a nearly unrecognizable Greta Gerwig).
Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine shoots mostly in grainy Super 16, while Larraín seamlessly weaves in snippets of archival footage. It's a remarkably effective technique, stripping away the divide between memory and the moment itself, giving the film a rushing sense of immediacy.
Mica Levi's indelible score further puts us into Jackie's state of mind. From the first notes, Levi sets the tone, crafting a woozy soundscape to a waking nightmare.
"Jackie" functions as a stirring depiction of grief — a popular theme among several late season releases this year — as Jackie seeks a space to mourn both within and away from public eye. While the filmmakers never claim to show us the "real" Jackie Kennedy, the result strives to understand and humanize this larger-than-life figure.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of the musical "La La Land."