Jackie: the King is Dead

With Post Mortem (2010), No (2012) and Neruda (coming to the UK in April 2017) Pablo Larraín has established himself as the most significant Latin-American filmmaker of the decade. Whether investigating his native Chile’s troubled history or America’s fall from grace, his films mine the collective subconscious of the past in innovative visual and narrative ways.

The subject of his English language debut Jackie is as much the making of an icon, Jacqueline Kennedy, as the unmasking of one of the 20th Century’s most enduring myths: the golden era of American liberalism at the height of the Cold War. Focussing tight, almost entirely in close-up, on Jackie, Larraín observes her closely in the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963: the shock, horror and disbelief at the events in Dallas are presented in intimate detail, as well as the strange, practical and procedural clarity that follows the required public arrangements of death.

At a time when America appears as more of a monstrous behemoth of conservatism than a young, golden-haired saviour for a world under threat, Jackie is, partly, an elegy for a lost world; however, the film is crystal clear that the image of the halcyon days of the beautiful Kennedys was more constructed than real. The film’s framing device suggests that Jackie herself was the mastermind behind the creation of the ‘Camelot myth’ immortalised in the Life magazine interview she gave barely a week after the death of her husband, an incredibly effective PR coup that chimed with the contemporary perception of JFK as America’s best-loved President. (You can read the Life interview on this digital copy of the magazine, and also this fascinating piece about how that interview came to be.) 

Conversely, there is plenty of evidence today to suggest that J.F.Kennedy’s energetic, wholesome and fashionable image was also an invention - he was a sick and suffering man who took drugs to manage pain, as well as a known philanderer. But by presenting Jackie as a strong central figure even at the height of her vulnerability, Larraín argues for the absolute necessity of that collective fantasy for survival after shocking historical events - a classic pattern in dealing with trauma, repurposed from personal to national narratives.

Sebastián Sepúlveda's editing is central to the film's suturing of public and private, which in turn brings together history and memory: Jackie's flashbacks are juxtaposed with colour historical footage in a way that feels essential to representing the experience of extensive trauma, and yet appears to the viewer as completely organic (not in small part thanks to the extensive use of grainy 16mm film).

It is hard not to see in Jackie echoes of Hillary Clinton, both in the First Lady who endured her husband’s well-known infidelities with grace and dignity, and in the sense of an uncrowned queen that never was. In different times, in a different fairytale that would not end but begin in personal and public tragedy, Jackie could have held the reins of power of another kingless realm, lifting her subjects from despair into hope, conjuring up another enchanted, enchanting Camelot. And so Jackie crowns her beyond the simplistic image of the stylish widow in a Chanel dress, making her a resilient, dignified, magnetic First Lady to nurture and soothe an entire nation that seems to have lost its way - in 1963 as much as in 2017.

At the centre of it all is an astonishing performance by Natalie Portman (unfairly overlooked at the Golden Globes), whose stature grows throughout the film as she traces the distance between the person and the persona of Jackie Kennedy, removing stifling elocution and posture corrections learnt for her public appearances as she goes along, insisting instead that the people see her as she is - lisping, in shock, covered in blood - still a mother to her children and to a freshly-orphaned America. And for this writer - a self-declared hater of invasive film scores - Jackie is also a film built and sustained throughout by music: Mica Levi’s (Under the Skin) score is unnerving and spellbinding, plunging viewers into the shockwaves of grief and sorrow, only to gently help them to float and swim through these choppy waters with sheer aural effects. 

Watching Jackie as I did in Berlin, minutes away from the location of JFK's most important speech (“Ich bin ein Berliner”), and only days after the death of Fidel Castro only helped to make this compelling film utterly unforgettable for me, with a sense that the twentieth century is now really dead, and Jackie is its perfect funeral oration. As the film is released in the UK on the same day as President Trump’s inauguration, Larraín’s deliberate rewriting of history as female is then a reminder of the power of alternative narratives - not to delude us into wishful thinking and undo the tragedies of the past, but to conjure up the strength to withstand the present and empower us to imagine a different future, thus wading through grief and anger towards the wilder shoes of hope. And, despite election results and continued assaults on equality, Jackie states loud and clear that the future is female. The king is dead, long live the queen.

[Irene Musumeci, Film Marketing Manager, Curzon Cinemas]

Jackie is out in cinemas from Friday 20 January.  Check out the Pablo Larraín Collection on Curzon Home Cinema