Jackie, the first English-language film by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, offers a compellingly uneasy and nuanced portrait of one of the best-known first ladies in American history, engagingly played by Natalie Portman.
Focusing on a short period after John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the film does not offer a conventional narrative of Jackie’s life; we discover little about her background, and her later life as an editor and cultural figure goes unmentioned. Instead, by showing her at a moment of intense pain and heightened public scrutiny, it reflects powerfully on the experience of being constantly in the public eye – the ongoing construction of ‘Jackie’ as image and as myth.
Throughout, there is a mood of dislocation. The film shifts between different times and different versions of Jackie: there is Jackie immediately after JFK’s death, on the plane in a blood-stained suit; Jackie in a later interview, coolly correcting a journalist; a black-and-white reconstruction of an awkward, staged White House tour early in the presidency; Jackie telling a priest about the mixed memories of her marriage. Combined with Mica Levi’s eerie, spacy score, these jumps in time and place evoke a sense of traumatic disorientation and fracture. This instability contrasts both with the public image Portman’s Jackie appears determined to project, and also with the aesthetic of the film itself; each frame is meticulously, often symmetrically constructed. In another context this might convey a sense of control; here, the stylised aesthetic neatness feels uncanny, almost mask-like.
At one point, standing in the Oval Office, Jackie says, in the distinctively breathy and slightly unsettling voice that comes to characterise her: “I lost track somewhere, what was real, what was performance.” She is describing her marriage, but the thought also gets to the heart of the film, which plays with the notion of performance to frustrate the idea that we can access any single, unmediated version of its central figure. Often surrounded by advisors and politicians, and in an age which saw increasing power of televised images, Jackie is almost always being observed, seen refracted through the gaze of others – a point Larraín stresses through various shots of her in mirrors or framed by windows. Even in the most intimate scenes – memorable close-up moments of Jackie grieving alone – the stylisation of the images is a reminder of the ever-presence of artifice and display. Eighty years ago, Walter Benjamin wrote: “The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.” Here, Larraín plays with the distancing and inevitably artificial nature of the camera’s gaze to evoke the alienation of a life lived in public. Whatever happens, we still find ourselves at a distance from her; perhaps she is even distanced from herself. At times, the sumptuously polished aesthetic of these moments even borders on the voyeuristic, reminding us that we too risk becoming spectators, gawping at her pain.
Viewing Jackie’s life as a performance raises the question of her agency: forced to behave a certain way, does she nonetheless regain some kind of control as she cannily manipulates public perception of herself? How authentic is this kind of control, anyway? Larraín declines to provide a clear answer. The lasting ambiguity of the interplay between power and passivity is the key to the film, which – strikingly – refuses to frame its protagonist in any single way. In a male-dominated world, Jackie’s role is defined throughout in relation to her husband, as first lady and then as widow; she must – as she tells her interviewer – “just [become] a Kennedy”. Yet, if the film on one level positions Jackie as the object of others’ vision – even to the point of risking complicity with this gaze – it equally stresses the way in which she continually constructs and edits her own image. She is a figure known for her ability to curate a certain aesthetic; she is acutely conscious of the writing of history. We see her pointedly tell her interviewer what he can and cannot publish; she stands up to Lyndon Johnson’s administration and to Bobby Kennedy when organising her husband’s funeral.
Discussing her often-cited theory of performativity – which explores the prescriptive yet potentially subversive process of performing socially constructed gender roles – the theorist Judith Butler once commented: “this is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in”. For Jackie, the need to perform is limiting and alienating. Yet, at the same time, it offers her the possibility of rewriting the script.