Alison Jackson, a British artist, uses celebrity lookalikes to create spookily convincing satirical photographs of what she imagines the rich and famous are getting up to behind closed doors, from Queen Elizabeth II on the toilet to Kim Kardashian and Kanye West choosing baby names. Glance at these grainy snaps, and you can believe that you are seeing the real thing.
“Jackie”, an intimate drama about Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman), has a similarly disconcerting effect. Using slightly fuzzy 16mm film, which resembles candid footage from the period, it shows us a legendarily poised and glamorous figure when she is off duty and off guard in her White House apartment – drinking, smoking, trying on dresses. The difference is that while Jackson specialises in cheeky pictures of people mucking about, “Jackie” revolves around someone who is drowning in grief.
The film, which is the English-language debut of Pablo Larraín, a Chilean director, is set in November 1963. A mere week after John F. Kennedy has been assassinated, an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) drives to the family mansion in Hyannis Port to interview the widowed former First Lady. As she parries his questions with a composure that she is highly unlikely to have had in the circumstances, the events of the previous days are presented as a mosaic of flashbacks.
According to the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, she wasted no time in trying to cement her husband’s reputation as a great president. She stage-managed his grand funeral procession so that it echoed Abraham Lincoln’s, and she selected a suitably prominent spot for his burial in Arlington National Cemetery. More importantly, she used the media to deepen the impression of the JFK presidency as a glorious fairy-tale “Camelot”. Nothing in the interview can be published without her approval, she tells the reporter at the start of the film. “This will be your own version of what happened,” he agrees, helpfully spelling out the movie’s main theme: that Kennedy was a shrewd and steely media manipulator who controlled how she was perceived.
Actually, though, the film-makers are the ones in control. However dignified and elegant Kennedy tried to appear, the film-makers depict her at her lowest ebb. In a sense, “Jackie” is a horror movie. As the discordant glissandos in Mica Levi’s doom-laden orchestral score seem to stretch the world out of shape, Kennedy battles through the immediate aftermath of the shooting. In one scene she has the awful job of telling her two small children that their father won’t be coming home. In another, she sobs in extreme close-up while wiping her husband’s blood from her face. In a third, she strips off her pink Chanel suit, and then has a shower to wash off the remainder of the blood. Many of these sequences are almost unbearably harrowing. Portman may not be a dead ringer for Kennedy, but she has mastered her breathy, cooing over-enunciation (I’d never realised before how close Kennedy’s voice is to Marilyn Monroe’s), and she conveys just how shatteringly traumatic her experiences must have been.
Like most biopics, the film tries to reveal the vulnerable human being behind the shiny façade. But it feels ghoulish and intrusive, too. Partly this is because Kennedy was so obsessive about her privacy, so the film could be thought of as a posthumous version of the voyeuristic paparazzi shots which she detested. And partly it is because “Jackie” focuses on a widow’s distress more intently than any other biopic I’ve seen. As in Alison Jackson’s photographs, there is a cruelty to the painstaking way the film recreates every detail of Kennedy’s immaculate hairstyle and designer outfits precisely as she wanted them to be seen, only to show her exactly as she wouldn’t have wanted to be seen.
Do we really need to see behind these particular closed doors – both the bathroom door on Air Force One and the bedroom door in the White House? Do we really need to see John Kennedy’s fractured head and exposed brain in Jacqueline’s lap? If the film weren’t so visceral and vivid it wouldn’t have prompted these misgivings, of course, so perhaps “Jackie” is just too effective. Larraín portrays Kennedy’s pain so convincingly that I was left feeling that he shouldn’t have portrayed it at all.
Jackie Out now