Directed by Pablo Larraín
Opens December 2
It’s amusing to imagine people seeing Jackie—one of two new films directed by Pablo Larraín that open in December—and then, diving into his back catalogue. Theirs would be a dive into the darkest depths of human nature and historical horror, inhabited by the damaged and the twisted, the latter of whose psychologies can challenge the bounds of viewer empathy. I’m thinking of the murderous Saturday Night Fever obsessive at the center of the Pinochet-era Tony Manero, or the house of pederast priests in The Club, though no less disturbing are the struggles of the stricken morgue worker of Post Mortem, set during Chile’s 1973 coup and strewn with bodies from that massacre. Even Larraín’s ostensibly feel-good film about the referendum against Pinochet, No, starring Gael García Bernal, points to a potentially corrosive and cynical partnership between democratic movements and advertising sloganeering.
One of Larraín’s two new features, Neruda, sees the Chilean filmmaker staying close to home, and close to the heart of his country’s culture, refracting its portrait of the poet Pablo Neruda through his pursuit by a government investigator. But for Jackie, Larraín broaches some of the most hallowed mythology of the United States, staying close to the newly widowed Jackie Kennedy as she reckons with the death of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Here, Larraín’s impulse for shining a light on the unspeakable—which he demonstrated to ample and willfully shocking effect in previous work—leads to the devastating, rocky territory of grief, which can so often feel insurmountable. Yet for all its focus on the strife of the newly former first lady, Jackie is at its strongest not as a making-of-history biopic, but as a perceptive and aphoristic essay on history.
In a barbed interpretation that veers toward vocal imitation, Natalie Portman stars as President Kennedy’s bereft partner, defender of his legacy in the aftermath of his assassination. Interspersed with moments from her conversation with journalist Theodore White (Billy Crudup), the back-and-forth narrative shows her coping with suddenly becoming an outsider in the White House, an honorary figure now lost in the turmoil of emergency transition. The hushed fragmentation of the editing gets around the difficulty of dramatizing Jackie’s post-traumatic struggle, while flashbacks bring us closer to the zero hour of the assassination—all of which captures the way a disaster collapses the past, present, and future into a new reality.
Speaking of new realities… Jackie is also a high-profile film that now arrives smack on history’s latest fault line. It looks conceived as a surefire starry gloss on a well-trod part of America’s past, a shrewd reflection on legacy using a political figure more frequently viewed as glamorous icon and noble survivor—all of this shadowed by the irony of being close to power but not having power, an irony which could have felt quaintly anachronistic. Now, in light of recent events, it might be hard to view the film’s delicate personal-political balance without dwelling, morbidly and simply, on the inescapable fact of historical cataclysm, and how it marks a generation for years to come.