Jackie Kennedy is stalking the White House like a ghost.
She is wiping her husband’s blood off her face, sobbing into a mirror. She and John are disembarking from a plane, the cries of the crowd are as soft and lulling as the sound of the sea. She is black-veiled and bitter, marching down a street seen around the world; face cast in iron. She is holding together John’s blown-apart head, scraps of skull littering the back seat of their car.
She is not all of these things simultaneously, but she is all of these things equally. So it goes in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, a biopic that dares to offer up a barrage of faked fronts and artificial personas in lieu of the easily digestible character arcs we are usually offered in such films. In that way, it is a biographical drama in which the aim is not to examine a person, but to heavily suggest that such an examination is fundamentally worthless: a film that bucks the very purpose of its genre and throws up its gloriously empty hands.
A ‘Real’ Woman
Jackie’s title is a very good bad joke: a jolt of leering, considered misdirection. The film is not about Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, the woman, born July 28, 1929. Nor is it about Jackie Kennedy the mother, the wife or the friend. It is about Jackie Kennedy the signifier – America’s mother and a living, breathing Rorschach test.
The driving force of the film’s plot concerns Kennedy (expertly played by Natalie Portman) and her fraught decision whether or not to offer herself up to history following her husband’s death. In that way, it is less a coming-of-age story than it is a coming-of-image story. Kennedy spends the film both aware she is defined by her own legacy and yet deeply suspicious of it, forever fighting and accepting countless contrasting versions of herself.
For example, she is ever eager to stress to others her own intelligence, providing a riposte to the caricature maintained by the press that assumes she is a neutered, pretty woman. She constantly quotes from her beloved history books to friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and coolly undercuts the wit of reporter Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup), the man sent to chronicle her life post John’s death. But she is also obsessed with the finer things in life, dazzled by beauty: she is a modern royal blessed in pearls and antiques, and her endless attempts to restore the White House to ornate glory take up much of Jackie’s runtime.
As the film progresses, Larraín offers up more and more of these contradictions and manipulative constructs, ever obfuscating the ‘real’ Jackie, while Kennedy’s growing willingness to sacrifice her own feelings in the face of history is reflected in the film’s increasingly artificial feel. The soundtrack stops and starts as though controlled by a switch; archival footage is used as an eerily staged backdrop before which Portman and Gerwig strut; and the film’s controlled, carefully curated colour palette begins to border on the verge of surreal hysteria.
Reality becomes legacy, and legacy becomes history, and history becomes myth. Before the film is over, Kennedy leaves her flesh and blood behind, and becomes but a character, an archetypal figure more akin to the knights from the musical Camelot her John so loved than the ethically hobbled human she once lived as. And more than that, she does it willingly.
Somewhere, The Truth
Kennedy’s decision to sink into the annals of history as one would into a hot bath is never treated as a deluded or amoral choice. Indeed, quite the converse is true. Both the filmmaker and his subject believe in the strength and power of images, and as the real Jackie shrinks, the borders of her artificial persona strengthen into iron.
This, Larraín and Jackie seem to suggest, is a question of necessity. America is shown as an image-starved nation – a country for which television is still new, fascinated by the allure of the depicted and driven by the endless consumption of other lives. Before John’s assassination, the country’s interest in the White House is shown as curious and passive. Following the assassination, it becomes obsessive. In the face of widespread horror and chaos, the only true medication is found to be myth.
Kennedy serves that purpose, at first with some trepidation, and then finally with the full depth of her belief and conviction. As she grows more steadfast in this manner, so too does the film invest more and more in its own imagery, eventually abandoning the concept of context and linear history altogether. Before long, Jackie is more an assemblage of scenes and shots than it is a traditional narrative work.
This, then, is the takeaway. Larraín leaves us not with a single Jackie, but a cracked kaleidoscope full of them, each more plastic and artificial than the next. But this conclusion isn’t satiric or depressed. It is, Jackie aims to assure us, the happiest of all endings; the kind of finale kissed onto the end of a fairy tale. In the final moments of the film, both Kennedy and Larraín leap straight into the arms of myth, leaving the world as it stands far behind. History is discarded, the timeline is severed, and a real-life woman willingly morphs into metaphor. Not because she wants to. But because she must.
Jackie (dir. Pablo Larraín) is in cinemas now.