In Jackie, blood clings to the First Lady like it does to Lady Macbeth. It stains her powder-pink skirt-suit, congeals in her hair, splashes onto her face like tears.
It horrifies and fascinates her; she wears it like war-paint, with something approaching pride. But no matter how many times she tries to scrub it off, watches it spiral down the plug-hole, the disjointed chronology of Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s biopic ensures it always comes back. Some traumas never go away.
Natalie Portman will take the plaudits – and probably an Oscar – for her exceptional mimicry and emotional depth, but she’s one factor in many that elevates Jackie from a dusty historical piece to a queasy exploration of myth versus reality, of the pliable nature of truth, of existential fragility.
Told through a series of flashbacks during a magazine interview, Larraín’s film cuts and chops jaggedly as it recounts the events between the assassination of JFK and his funeral three days later.
We’re invited to peel back the layers of fiction, to consider the way people and events are shaped by the telling of their stories, how history is written and re-written on the fly, how perception can be as important as fact. Truth becomes a relative quantity, twisted and meted out in easy to digest portions, like the “truth” given by Jackie to her interviewer: “I don’t smoke”, she demures through a lungful of nicotine.
The film returns again and again to a painstakingly recreated version of Jackie’s grainy White House Tour that aired to an adoring public in 1962. In it she plays a charming, nervous debutante, the public face of an unknowable, private figure – a parallel fiction to the one we’re watching.
It falls to Billy Cudrup’s unnamed journalist to eke some truth from Jackie, although her most candid moments are immediately struck from the record (yet more layers of fiction!). “I suppose you want to know what the gun sounded like” she says before the film flashes back to its single, shocking moment of violence, putting the blood on Jackie’s skirt in vivid context. “I didn’t say that,” she says with a shrug when the story’s finished.
The flashbacks have a confused, shell-shocked quality, muted, like a dream that won’t end. Jackie spends them in a fug of smoke, pills and vodka, researching Lincoln’s lavish funeral and wrestling over whether to put her children in harm’s way – by making them walk in the open behind the funeral cortège – in a bid to preserve the Kennedy legacy. This is no airbrushed portrait of a national heroine.
Form and narrative go hand in hand, with Larraín’s camera hovering uncomfortably close to his star, Portman’s face often dominating the frame. She’s at the centre of the world, the eye of the storm, unable to see out. It’s uncomfortable, claustrophobic, a glimpse into the stifling worlds of grief and power, and the vacuum that forms when the two collide.
At the end, we haven’t learned anything startlingly new about Jackie Kennedy – on that front Larraín is refreshingly without agenda. Like the woman herself, he’s less interested in the facts than in the way those facts are remembered: that’s how you create something truly enduring.
First published in City A.M.