Pablo Larraín’s Jackie is a deconstructionist biopic about the construction of a historical legacy. One could say much of the same about the Chilean director’s other forthcoming period piece, Neruda, a film that nimbly exploits multiple genres in order to capture a dynamic personality wrapped up in a tumultuous era. Larraín’s portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the immediate wake of her husband’s assassination is a more circumscribed but no less slippery affair, fashioning an idea of the iconic first lady as simultaneously cynical, grief-stricken, and avowedly willing to sacrifice her pride in order to sanctify her husband’s reputation.
The film’s deliciously quotable script, by Noah Oppenheim, is framed by conversations that blur public and private concerns. Jackie’s famous televised tour of the White House is a transparent, albeit wildly successful, attempt to use the intimacy of a new medium to forge a connection between the first family and the American people. (Here and elsewhere, Jackie tweaks her reputation for profligacy into the work of a caring wife.) Even more heavily orchestrated is her interview with a Life magazine reporter (Billy Crudup), the final act of Jackie’s campaign to consecrate John F. Kennedy’s (Caspar Phillipson) legacy in the week after his death. Their meeting is set up to be a psychological chess match, but Larraín, framing Jackie between massive columns, quickly makes it apparent that she’s the queen to this nameless journalist’s dutiful pawn. “I’ll be editing this conversation,” she purrs, taking every short vowel sound on long, unexpected detours.
Words like “legacy,” “memory,” “artifact,” and “performance” are uttered with great frequency and given similarly acrobatic renderings throughout Jackie, bluntly hammering home the notion that history is framed by perception rather than reality. In its knowledge that the exercise of power itself is work best suited to a good actor, Oppenheim’s screenplay acts in tandem with Portman’s husky diction and brittle features to lend a coy, campy charge to the first lady’s attempts to mold the public image of her family. A strange flashback to a classical music performance in the White House’s East Room finds Jackie deriving a seemingly orgiastic satisfaction from great art. The film’s delicate suggestions about Jackie’s sexual starvation reverberate through conversations and physical contact with brother-in-law Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) and longtime aide Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), and culminate in the widow musing, “When men see me now, what do you think they feel?”
Jackie never figures out how to reconcile its self-conscious tendencies with its protagonist’s raw grief, but Mica Levi’s score makes an ostentatious effort to bridge that gap, taking inspiration from Jonny Greenwood’s work on The Master. Horns and strings rise and then descend into a cauldron of lonesome interiority, and stray woodwinds flare at suitably off-kilter moments, mainly as Larraín homes in on the abrupt transfer of power. Jackie simultaneously prepares to vacate the White House, where she catches stray glimpses of Lyndon (John Carroll Lynch) and Ladybird Johnson (Beth Grant) examining fabric samples and huddling in a cocoon of aides and lackeys, and plans her husband’s funeral, where she’s repeatedly cautioned that her aspirations for the ceremony—a grand public procession, attended by world dignitaries and the public—pose an outsized national security risk. She absorbs this advice with a rather brazen indecision, between stretches of boozing and pill-popping spent listening to the soundtrack for the musical Camelot.
That the first lady ultimately binds King Arthur’s court and the Kennedy family in the public memory is, one assumes, meant to be a defining act of world-historical branding, but Jackie doesn’t know how to stick that landing. It’s a deeply erratic biopic posing as a prismatic one. Larraín’s direction never distinguishes between moments of raw anguish and instances of manipulation, forcing the film’s more wrenching scenes (a minute-long close-up of Jackie describing her husband’s blasted-open skull, as Portman’s eyebrows squirm like caterpillars; a scene where she breaks news of the assassination to her two children) to be viewed through the same filter of performativity as her cat-and-mouse interactions with Crudup’s handsome dupe of a reporter. “I’ve grown accustomed to a great divide between reality and perception,” Jackie tells him early on, and the film that follows is undeniably striking but ultimately rudderless, an undisciplined slew of perceptions meant to stand in for a complex character portrait.