Having dominated the Chilean art house scene for the past decade, Pablo Larraín has finally delivered his English-language debut, Jackie. Fortunately, Larraín abandons the conventions of the traditional biopic and opts instead for his technical and atmospheric staples - drained palette, photographic innovation, elegiac narrative, distant staging - that have since made him a mainstay on the international scene. In this way, Larraín is not only able to stay true to his established voice, but furthermore, redefine the very nature of the biopic.
Beginning moments after and charting up until a week following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson), Jackie spins a brief period into a mounting portrait of grief, identity, and legacy. By distorting the temporal structure, Larraín and editor Sebastián Sepúlveda (The Club) constantly travel from before, during, to after the tragic event, all the while further painting the character of Jackie (Natalie Portman). This editing style of jump cuts and narrative upheaval works in a radical way, as previously noted, it completely reshapes the possibilities of the biopic. Thus, Jackie has more in common with Godard's Breathless or this year's Arrival than it does with genre relatives The Aviator (2004) and/or Milk (2008).
This isn't said to detract from the aforementioned's merits, but rather to further illustrate exactly how important Jackie is. Rather than simply standing out among the bunch, Larraín chooses to create an entirely new category. The way in which the narrative is composed is not by way of typical plot structure; for instance, the film's would-be climax - the assassination - serves as the its epilogue as well as its closing chapter. There are no big moments in terms of performance or set pieces, and instead Larraín and scribe Noah Oppenheim (The Maze Runner) conduct a sort of mise en abyme.
To understand this, we must first acknowledge that the story the audience is given is purely fictive. A recounting of obviously private and intimate moments adapted from no prior source other than assumption. In this sense, Jackie is a mythic work, and when asked by the titular focus what he wishes to get out of this interview, The Journalist (Billy Crudup) responds, "Something that resembles the truth."
As an audience we can hope for nothing more than what The Journalist seeks, and in this moment, he becomes our surrogate and guide down the rabbit hole of this poetically investigative tale of who Jackie was, but only for this chosen moment -- as if to suggest this week, this time, would define the rest of her life much like she tried with Jack's?
Now, the notion of mise en abyme has been likened to the experience of staring at one's appearance between two mirrors and witnessing an infinite number of reflections. This is where Sepúlveda's editing comes back into play, as the linear shifts and jumps between the four layers of time create a, photographically speaking, cubist effect. Which is to say, by provoking the temporal nature, Sepúlveda allows for these layers of time to be occurring simultaneously (think the structure of "time as a flat circle" from Arrival), thus the portrayal of Jackie is that of four women stacked upon each other, all attempting to distinguish themselves while being viewed by the world.
The four Jackie's are: pre-assassination, the TV show, the week after, and the interview. In order to easily discern between the jumps, cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (A Prophet) utilizes various photographic mediums - vintage television cameras, black-and-white photography, 1.66 : 1 ratio, etc. - to appropriately accentuate every element. This along with Mica Levi's absolutely haunting score allows for one of the most aesthetically daunting and powerful films of the decade thus far. Truly, at this point, anything that Levi commits her sounds to can be assumed to be, at the very least, transformative.
However, even with all the technical prowess, the feat of Jackie would not have been possible without its flawless central performance by Natalie Portman (an actress so well matched for the role, that Larraín has gone on record stating he wouldn't have done the project if she hadn't signed on). Jackie is a woman who, within a week, becomes a ghost in her own life. Bearing the loss of her husband and retaining the responsibilities of consoling her children, moving out of the White House, and essentially having her life upended, Jackie was also subject to a nation's watchful eye and its many criticisms. Again, this portrayal is a supposition of Jackie, yet one miraculously played by Portman. Through her performance, there is truth to be found.
We witness Jackie wander through halls, visually restricted by pillars, relics of America's past, and Secret Service agents. Characters converse in the Lincoln Bedroom only to transport seconds later to a ballroom, still in the same conversation. The superstitious elements of Jackie are heightened by its technical audacity. The characters float and transport, only when grounded in reality - the funeral march, the television special - do they begin to resemble humans. Stilted, confined, and stagnant, Jackie typically walks literal circles around these figures as they stand behind a desk, rest in a chair, or statically pose. The White House is a crumbling mausoleum, and as Jackie attempted to breathe life into it during her tenure, the tragic conclusion is her witnessing of its eventual regression upon her departure. This is not a biopic, this is an American ghost story.