TIFF 2016 Review: ‘Jackie’
Some time after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) allows a reporter (Billy Crudup) to interview her. They meet at the front door of the house she’s now living in after moving out of the White House, and in mere seconds she makes one thing clear: no matter what this reporter wanted to write, she will edit the article to her liking. Jackie’s insistence on control repeatedly comes up during her conversations with the reporter, which make one half of the film’s structure; the second half comes in the form of flashbacks to the assassination itself and the aftermath. But director Pablo Larrain makes one thing clear from the way he films these flashbacks: these are from Jackie’s own perspective, and therefore represent what really happened as opposed to whatever she tells the reporter.
It’s an interesting way to start the film off, since the “real” version of events in the film are what Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim want to portray. And what they want to show appears to be a messy, fragmented, and haphazard series of stabs in the dark, a collection of exterior formal choices designed to provide an unconventional glimpse into the interior of its title character. The results are borderline unbearable at times, with no sense of coherency or insight beyond trying to upend expectations associated with biopics. But no matter how jagged the edits or loud the score might be (Under the Skin composer Mica Levi did the music here, which acts as a good lesson on the difference between powerful and overbearing), Jackie remains a turgid fiasco.
Part of this may have to do with the bizarre struggle between the approach of Larrain and his cast. Shooting on 16mm with cinematographer Stephane Fontaine, Larrain utilizes close-ups almost exclusively, albeit in different manners. The reporter scenes have the camera locked down with Crudup and Portman facing the camera directly, whereas the flashbacks rely on handheld cameras and steadicam. The frantic nature of the camera movements in the flashback reflect how hectic of a time Kennedy’s assassination was, and that’s about the deepest insight Larrain has when it comes to relating form and content. Like Neruda, Larrain’s other film from this year, Jackie employs distinctive aesthetic choices in a way that sets the film apart, but without providing a sense of overall purpose to them. It feels scatterbrained, but in a way that reflects the poor quality of the filmmaking.
It’s even stranger when watching Portman and other cast members like Peter Sarsgaard (playing Bobby Kennedy) and Greta Gerwig (Jackie’s best friend Nancy Tuckerman) try to act within this poorly thought out style. Portman acts as much as she possibly can as Jackie, delivering her lines in a breathy tone that can sound seductive at times, but it’s the kind of typical awards-friendly performance often lauded every year where the role is designed to show off the actor rather than provide a good performance. Sarsgaard, Gerwig, Crudup, and the rest of the supporting cast (including John Hurt as a priest who tries to tie an existential bow on the film at the end) don’t have an opportunity to do much, but in this case it might have been for the best. This is Portman’s show, and try as she might, her role would have been better suited for a more standard biopic, where her showing off would have fared better. Instead, it’s awkwardly caught in whatever kind of statement Larrain wants to make about Jacqueline Kennedy and her hand in ensuring her husband would cement a place in time (a point he makes by playing the song “Camelot” not once but twice, in case anyone didn’t get it the first time). People wanting to get a better portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy might want to stick with reading some books instead of watching this mess.