It’s difficult to remember where Jackie begins, and where it ends. Even minutes after leaving it, the moments that open the film and the moments that close it exist as diffuse notions rather than solid, plot-shrouded happenings. We understand that, barely a week after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a conversation between Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) and Life journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup, smugly zombified) frames the film, tacks it to some semblance of spacetime—but the rest of Pablo Larraín’s biopic operates liminally. This, most of all, the Chilean director understands: If the film is about grief, then the film must act as grief acts. Unmoored and aimless, Jackie acts like a bad dream.
Threaded within the conversation between White and the recently widowed Kennedy is another narrative, that of Jackie planning her husband’s funeral despite the concerns of brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard, warm and welcome) and the nascent Johnson administration, and within that narrative—or alongside it—is another, and another, and another, memories whirlpooling around and between each other, cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s camera often spinning besides or following close behind Jackie, always intimate, as she heads irretrievably toward some unspeakable drain, some unseen black hole. A carefully reconstructed behind-the-scenes look at CBS/NBC special A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy operates inside of White’s interview, and inside that televised tour lurk the moments before the Dallas murder—in which Jackie practices her Spanish before a bathroom mirror, like both an actress reciting lines and a new wife about to meet her husband’s family—and the shock after.
Inside those vignettes wander more vignettes: Jackie trying to reconcile faith with a seemingly indifferent deity, advised by a close-talking priest (John Hurt, just kind of there); Jackie trying to pick the perfect site for her husband as she tries to pick her heels out of the mud, her and Bobby navigating rain-engorged gravesites at the Arlington National Cemetery; Jackie trying to throw her son a functional third birthday party only three days after his father’s death; and at the edge of the abyss, at the event horizon of complete submission, Jackie trying on black dresses, chainsmoking and drunkenly weaving in and out of rooms in the White House private quarters, consumed by loneliness and indecision. Jackie trying—to buttress her husband’s legacy, to stand defiantly against whatever ineffable force killed her husband, to maintain and live on and have some role in how she’s remembered, in how the myth of her White House lives on. This is how Larraín translates grief, as a series of tries. We watch Jackie try over and over to save herself from the vortex threatening to suck her forever into the moment when she lost everything.
Noah Oppenheim’s script doesn’t understand this. Instead, it’s concerned with the utilitarianism of myth-making: how it works, how it wilts, how it wields power. Much of the conflict between Jackie and the reporter, between Jackie and Bobby, between Jackie and LBJ (John Carroll Lynch), or between Jackie and the priest is in Oppenheim’s dialogue. He writes each scene as a series of negotiations: regarding the safety of the funeral procession, or the accomplishments of the Kennedy administration, or, perhaps most of all, the public image Jackie actively constructs of herself. “I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy,” she admits. Even a belabored musing on the musical Camelot, through which Jackie envisions her time in the White House as worthy of royal historicity, is painfully obvious, but it helps to explain how Jacqueline Bouvier became such a beloved figure long before the tragedy that iconized her. What Oppenheim totally misses is why any such myth-making actually matters.
Larraín and Fontaine (worth noting: they don’t actually rhyme) allow only for Oppenheim’s navel-gazing to limn their oneiric reveries. Every shot and sequence feels fragile, exquisitely tactile, as if it’s supposed to be preserved in place. Like the mannequins in boutique windows wearing Jackie’s legendary pink Chanel dress, Jackie is artifact, or, more specifically, art transmogrifying into artifact. For much of the film she keeps that dress on, still covered in her husband’s blood, but finally strips it off to shower, revealing one of the film’s most arresting shots: rivulets running down Portman’s naked back. Granted, such stark vulnerability can sometimes clash with the romance in the film’s veins, but it’s shot so sumptuously, acted by Portman with such a finely controlled, arch sensibility, that the film becomes a disorienting, monumentally surreal experience. All of which literalizes Jackie Kennedy’s grief. No wonder some people have referred to this as a horror film.
Oppenheim’s script declares that grief is selfish—we grieve mostly for ourselves, the losers—while Larraín feels that grief, admits its immensity and then shrinks it, makes it personal. Much of Jackie focuses on the way she alters her public image, reserving the right to “edit” her comments when interviewed by White. She reminds him she doesn’t smoke as she lights another cigarette, inhaling deeply, obviously seeking solace in the habit. She’s not manipulating her husband’s history so much as struggling to control her own. She’s just trying really hard to keep her shit together.
Of course, the black hole at the core of Jackie is the assassination, rendered in one graphic image Larraín treats fairly. Throughout, the film hovers around the rim of this moment, and for much of Jackie’s running time, that moment seems like it will never come. When it does, though, it’s a relief we never realized we needed. Portman as Jackie pushes against the film’s reveal of that tragic split-second, and the film pushes too, and at times you want the film to stop pushing so much. This is grief, Larraín beautifully says—it is exhausting and relentless and dull, and, most of all, selfish. Sorry the movie is that way too.
Director: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Noah Oppenheimer
Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, John Carroll Lynch, John Hurt, Greta Gerwig, Max Casella, Beth Grant
Release Date: December 2, 2016
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.