Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s mesmerizing “Jackie” is an intimate and existential exploration of one of the 20th century’s most iconic figures, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The spiritual, somber and intellectual script delves into Jackie’s experience during and immediately after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, in 1963.
Larrain weaves a mesmerizing cinematic spell hand-in-hand with star Natalie Portman, cinematographer Stephane Fontaine and composer Mica Levi. Shot on Super 16 mm film, the camera squares directly on Jackie’s face at eye level, peering into her eyes, close enough to nearly feel her breath. Eerily beautiful cellos and violins swoon on the sound track, woozy and undulating like Jackie on a grief bender.
Portman apes the flat-voweled patrician accent well enough, but it’s the physical performance that summons the ghost of the first lady. Portman pours her emotional self into the role of a highly visible woman suddenly finding herself bereft, alone, traumatized, searching for meaning and purpose.
The script interweaves several interactions as framing devices to structure the plot. A conversation with a journalist (Billy Crudup) reveals a Jackie who is aware of her own image as the most famous widow in the world. A walk with a priest (John Hurt) shows her at her most confessional, questioning God, life’s meaning and existence.
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There’s also a re-creation of Jackie’s televised tour of the White House, pre-assassination, that demonstrates her knowledge of history and care for beautiful things, and how she came to understand the power of media images. Her nervous TV presentation is in contrast to the frazzled yet self-possessed woman who refuses to hide the truth about her husband’s brutal murder. She insists on wearing her blood-spattered pink suit after the shooting, a manifestation of her trauma. She takes her children by the hand to their father’s casket in front of the world’s cameras, showing the tragic loss of their father.
“Jackie” is a story about trauma, loss and grief, but also about the careful creation of an American mythic icon. A student of presidential history from her careful restoration of the White House, Jackie is attuned to the process of presidential myth-making, and the power of images and symbols in that storytelling. Creating that myth offers her purpose in those mournful days, as her last gift to her husband.
Portman is magnetic in the role, but it’s a performance that works in concert with all the other elements of the filmmaking — cinematography, production design, costume design, score, supporting performances. It’s a perfect film because all of the details are perfect together. But far greater than any meticulously artful style is the beating heart of the woman who was known simply as “Jackie.”
Rated R for brief strong violence and some language. 1:39. Kentucky.