in 41st Toronto International Film Festival
by Jake Howell
With this intensely intimate and emotionally crushing portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at the height of her most tragic moment, a subject that seems an unlikely follow-up from 2015’s The Club, the fluidity of Pablo Larraín’s filmography — and the uncompromising excellence of his latest film — showcases the director’s greatness as a storyteller.
There have been many portrayals of the former First Lady (both before her husband’s assassination, and during his administration), and while many of them feel grand in scope, Natalie Portman’s understanding of the woman is possibly the grandest. Perhaps taking subtle notes from the Edies of Grey Gardens and studying Jackie’s unique breathy cadence and stubborn poise, Portman takes this enigmatic role and delivers utter magic. According to the moving script by Noah Oppenheim, Jacqueline Kennedy is a woman who acts out of spite while trying her best to remain polite; her contradictory and empowered characteristics define her (“I don’t smoke,” she says, while chain-smoking) just as much as her official title does. Further, this is a movie where we get to see Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) tell President Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) to “sit down.”
With the JFK assassination covered relentlessly in myriad media, we are at a point where it is only a matter of time before someone creates a comprehensive mash-up of the historic tragedy, cribbing clips together from the mountain of dramatizations to complete a full timeline of events. If this project is ever undertaken, Larraín’s entry is sure to be featured prominently in such a montage: scenes in the car following the attack are some of the most compelling images of the attack, and of 2016 in general, with jaw-dropping footage other Kennedy pictures dare attempt (as the camera captures from behind, watching Secret Service Special Agent Clint Hill’s tie whip in the wind as he clings to the limousine speeding ahead is an overwhelmingly great shot).
Portman’s performance in Jackie is just as mesmerising. Sitting across Billy Crudup’s excellent magazine reporter, their ensuing interview acts as a framing device for the movie: throughout the mine-ridden conversation, the film outlines her character’s consistent references to the White House as Camelot, a metaphor that Mrs. Kennedy was often quoted on, and through the film’s effective use of the 1959 Broadway musical Camelot’s title song (and other tracks), a sonic fantasy realm is conjured to bewitch audiences under the indelible spell of the Kennedy Administration, an idyllic, ephemeral point in time for the average American who could watch on television Mrs. Kennedy, First Lady of the United States, tour the White House as a castle of exquisite grace, American artifacts, and legendary parties.
This utopia was obviously shattered by the bullets of a 6.5x52mm Italian Carcano rifle, and the horrific emotional result is captured via abject harmony in Mica Levi’s dramatic, staggering string score — the kind that made Under the Skin crawl with aggressive, otherworldly tones. Thus Jackie recalls moments of pure impending horror from classic cinema: early scenes feel akin to the eerie stillness of The Shining, where tracking shots follow lonely walk-throughs of a massive mansion. It’s Larraín’s directorial gravity — the sense of place and time instilled here is truly rare — combined with Levi’s aural masterstrokes and Portman’ astounding presence on screen as an iconic historical figure that ensure Jackie is not simply a worthy winner of the Toronto International Film Festival’s sophomore Platform prize. It’s one of the best films of the year.
Edited by Michael Sicinski
© FIPRESCI 2016