When Chilean director, Pablo Larraín, assembled his French crew at La Cité du Cinéma outside Paris, to make his first English language film with a mostly American cast, he recalled thinking to himself, “What is this ice cream flavour?” 
He had spent much of his career, to this point, making exclusively male-focused, darkly opaque art house films about the legacy of the Pinochet regime. So he must have wondered how he had come to be telling the story of the iconic First Lady who bound together the “beautiful people” of American politics; the Kennedys.
And yet, like fireweed and honey, or miso cherry, the finished film has a strangely compelling flavour. It is an ambiguous, wraithlike work that threatens to evaporate around Natalie Portman’s enigmatic study of public dignity and private heartbreak. The most quasi of quasi-biopics, Jackie is less concerned with conventional portraiture and much more so with broader and more elusive questions about the nature of grief, the construction of history and the role of the imagination in exorcising trauma from the body politic.
It focuses almost exclusively on the tragic figure of Jackie and the remarkable way she behaved in the aftermath of the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, in November of 1963.
One of the defining images of the 1960’s was of Jackie Kennedy wearing a pink Chanel suit stained with her husband’s blood. She had been sat beside him when he was shot and had held his head together for six minutes as he was rushed to hospital. Later, she reportedly refused to take off the dress in order to, “Let them see what they have done”. Her statement was one of defiance and anger but also, almost inexplicably, amidst the horror, one that showed an acute awareness of the power of spectacle.
Within a week she had orchestrated a state funeral modelled on Lincoln’s and conducted an interview with Theodore White of Life Magazine, during which she made repeated reference to her husband’s fondness for the Broadway musical Camelot and its vision of a “brief shining moment” in the medieval darkness.
The image of the Kennedys as keepers of the flame is one that still flickers in the American consciousness despite the audaciousness of its conception. And, it owes much to the elegant figure of Jackie Kennedy, marching at the head of her husband’s coffin, witnessed by millions. Her campaign to eulogise him is imagined by Larraín as a kind of emotional pact between the First Lady and the nation; a mutual agreement to hold firm in the face of disaster. Crucially, it was also one that converged with the explosion of television and mass media into public life.
Television had been commonplace in people’s homes since the 1950’s, and TV news had existed for about a decade prior to that, but the assassination of JFK was a significant watershed in terms of the scale and intensity of its coverage. Most networks embarked on four straight days of live, advertisement coverage, something not repeated in the United States until 9/11.
For Larraín’s part, his interest had been piqued by a curious TV special from 1962 titled, A Tour of the White House with Mrs John F. Kennedy. It had been intended as a relatively low-key documentary about the restoration of an old building but turned out to be a minor sensation. The show was viewed by 80 million people, outdoing the 60 million who had watched her husband in the first ever televised presidential debate, two years earlier. In those terms, it’s not hard to see why, at the end of a state visit to France, JFK opened a press conference by saying, “I do not think it altogether inappropriate for me to introduce myself. I was the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”
The untouchable mystique of Jackie Kennedy and something of the complex intertextual relationship between history and the moving image is subtly articulated through the almost invisible use of archive footage and Stéphane Fontaine’s luxuriously grainy 16mm cinematography. Fontaine approximates the texture and feeling of this illusory, golden era and a sense of the romance that Jackie embodied in the collective imagination.
That the 1960’s was, arguably, anything but a golden era is the gnawing counterpoint of the film. It might be too much to say it’s an ironic portrayal – and, Larraín is far too reverent to Jackie for this to be the case - but there is a dissonance at play that troubles easy reading of situation and character. At times the eerie score from composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin) lends much of the film the uncanny timbre of a nightmare. It builds around a seething, miasmic waltz before unravelling like a crumpled flag.
In the days after the assassination, away from the glare of public scrutiny, Jackie is said to have remarked, “I’m a living wound...I’m dried up...I cry all day and all night… my life is over and I will spend the rest of it waiting for it to be over”. Tragedy had followed her for much of her life; she had lost two of her four children in infancy and much of her married life had been marred by periods of depression and lingering suspicions of infidelity on the part of her husband. In the film, during her interview with White, she admits to occasionally forgetting, “What is real and what is performance”.
And, it is the intermingling of reality and performance - how imagination and storytelling are woven into the fabric of both our personal and collective experience - that Larraín means to apprehend when he channels the myth of Jackie Kennedy. But, more than this, he is interested in the unconscious emotional force of behaviour. He has described Jackie as a love story and, in the strangest of ways, perhaps it is. Because, it’s not really a film about whether or not Camelot existed in the 1960’s – it’s about the mysterious reflex of survival that for one extraordinary moment in history was transposed from a heartbroken woman to an entire nation.
Sam Kenyon Document Human Rights Film Festival