How do you distill an event that changed the world into the personal experiences of one woman? In an industry rife with dull, by-the-numbers biopics (I’m looking at you, Trumbo) Pablo Larraín’s Jackie allows us to really feel something. We are not paraded through the greatest hits in the life of Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis (Natalie Portman) but instead treated to a frank and detailed psychodrama about the reality of what happens to a woman when her husband is murdered in front of her. We are witness to the psychic reordering of her mind as she attempts to come to terms with this incredible trauma. Suddenly, she is alone in the world, she is pushed out of her home, and her status is gone.
Jackie details the few days following the death of President Kennedy, oscillating between the immediate time after, an interview a week later with a reporter, and the historic 1962 tour of the Whitehouse that introduced Mrs. Kennedy to the world. Jackie is vulnerable but poised, hysterical but isolated. No one around her can understand how she is feeling or grasp the implications of this event for her as an individual.
The filmmaking is harsh and deliberate. If Jackie is not framed in extreme-close-up, then she is stranded in rooms devoid of human contact, overly furnished and prim. She is lost and unreachable to everyone but us. A woman constantly filmed in close-up is a woman always seen through the eyes of others. In this film we very pointedly the voyeurs, as it is only outside the diegesis that Jacqueline Kennedy can be seen as she is.
Jackie is not a film that takes a woman’s suffering for granted. The pathos runs deep; the filmmaking forces you to be with her, to truly feel something. It is a quality tragically lacking in American cinema at large.
In its depiction of the assassination itself, Jackie holds back. For an event that is so ubiquitous, and so much a part of history, somehow Larrain turns it into something we have never seen before. A shot blasts out of the ether, a car speeds down a deserted highway in silence and for only a few seconds. This film understands that the event itself doesn’t matter as much as what happened later. Who killed President Kennedy is irrelevant, it only matters that he is gone. His ghost lingers over the narrative. In Jackie’s retelling of what that relationship was like, it soon becomes clear that he was a ghost to her long before a bullet shattered his skull. The mere fact of his existence secured her own.
Jackie doesn’t care about before or after it cares about the moment. Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis may have been a privileged lady but the fact of having her life ripped apart is not based in class. She was a woman in the early 1960’s who, in a moment, had nothing. Jackie wears her husbands blood on her clothes like a trophy, like a signifier, begging those around her to see that it may as well be her blood. She wanders alone through the White House in hysterics – a house that no longer welcomes her, a house she herself undertook to make great. Everything about it is distant, white and sterile. She can barely touch anything, and nothing is her own. Jackie is a great film if only for the fact that is lays bare the suffering of a woman in a deeply complex circumstance.