After an orchestral strike echoes in our ears, the screen momentarily flashes — a close-up of Jackie Kennedy’s contorted face, with lips pursed tightly and eyes unwaveringly staring at the audience. The visual complements the audial, and as both the score and stare continue for what seems unsettlingly long but still teasingly short, the screen goes black again.
The beginning of biopic “Jackie” is exemplar of the film itself: deeply personal and uncomfortably tragic. The film, directed by Pablo Larraín and starring Natalie Portman, cannot be defined by its genre or topic, as it transcends any general notion of a familiar American biopic. There are no patriotic musings, unnecessary dramatizations or long summaries. Instead, Larrain offers us a carefully crafted film that is both poignant and original in its method of telling a classic American story — even further uplifted through its use of acutely designed shots and a score that organically compliments the other aspects of the film.
The narrative follows Jackie after her husband, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated next to her in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. While the event is an iconic moment in recent American history, this film follows the direct aftermath of it in the eyes of Jackie Kennedy, bringing a strong female protagonist to a story often characterized by her male husband.
Pronounced from the beginning, the breathtaking and detailed cinematography deserves recognition. Shot by Stéphane Fontaine, two-time winner of France’s César Award for Best Cinematography, the film is defined by its use of meticulously framed shots that are essential to the audience’s understanding of the narrative. Specifically, there were several times throughout the film where a scene consisted of a single still shot, allowing for an uncut and unmanipulated meditation on the anguish in Portman’s eyes. These close-ups are dispersed between other equally beautiful shots, in which every part of the mise-en-scene is purposefully arranged and made necessary.
Just as notable is the elegantly composed score of “Jackie.” Composer Mica Levi, whose score for “Under the Skin” is universally acclaimed, makes her musical decisions count, crafting her pieces to be utilized in iconic and memorable fashion. The score is always loud — not to be used underneath the dialogue, but to be dialogue in itself, drawing together intense tension and emotion in an attempt to speak to the internal state of Jackie.
Much like the cinematography and score, the story is told impressionistic fashion, unfolding nonlinearly through framing the narrative within a conversation Jackie has with Life magazine journalist Theodore White after her husband’s death. While the plot jumps around from era to era, it all works because the film is held together as more of a portrayal of Jackie’s internal state than a historical retelling of events. The transitions resemble someone recalling a memory mid-conversation, if anything, and thus are naturally woven into the film as Jackie continues to recount events to the journalist.
Even though the film is essentially a focused look at Jackie during a transitional period in her life, it would be a disservice to say that the film is simple. Jackie is plagued by a wide variety of issues, and while each is particular in its effect on her psyche, they build up together as a prolonged torment on her life. The multitude of issues include her struggles with her job as the First Lady, her past arguments with her husband about vanity in art, her obsession with her husband’s legacy after his death and her ponderings on the accuracy of history versus dramatized stories.
But the true heart of “Jackie” lies in Natalie Portman’s performance. Her voice, while at first jarring and slightly off-putting, is transformed in pitch and accent. This significant shift is essential, as it brings to life her portrayal of Jackie in an accurate way. Her look is perfect as well, from her wide variety of beautiful dresses to her short bouncing hair — her pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat (worn at the time of JFK’s death) is immediately recognizable as the iconic Jackie-look.
Further elevating her performance are her heartbreaking facial expressions. There are several scenes in which Portman captures the reality of the anguish and tragedy of Jackie’s life exceptionally well, to the point where her stare is hauntingly embedded in the audience’s mind.
In one conversation, she reveals her disgust in the way history twists and dramatizes the stories of past great individuals and how those stories become more real than what actually occurred. And in a way, “Jackie” is a paradoxical answer to this, as it attempts to portray Jackie in a realistic, empathetic way while also, by the nature of being a film, dramatizing a story that will be more real to audiences than to Jackie’s actual life.