Chilean director Pablo Larrain told me in Cannes last May that his Natalie Portman-starrer Jackie would not be a classic biopic — and he wasn’t kidding. His first foray into helming an English-language movie, which world premiered at the Venice Film Festival today, focuses on the days immediately following the assassination of John F Kennedy from his sudden widow’s perspective.
It takes viewers through how the First Lady dealt with the aftermath, from standing by as Lyndon B Johnson was promptly sworn in as the new president aboard Air Force One, to telling her two small children that their father “had to go to heaven,” planning her husband’s funeral and exiting the White House. None of the above (and there’s a lot more) is handled in the classic sense, rather moving about to depict a version of what were Jackie’s anguish, anger, incomprehension and private moments after a shot heard round the world. Applause was hearty at press screenings this morning and reviews have been laudatory; there is awards buzz around Portman’s ethereal portrayal of a woman in crisis.
But is it a biopic? Not according to Larrain, the Oscar-nominated director of 2012’s No. “I don’t think so. It is an approach to something that is fascinating to us.”
It’s told from Jackie’s point of view as she shares flashback details with a reporter (Billy Crudup) at home in Hyannis Port — making clear she will be editing him as she goes along; recounting intimate details while admonishing that he can’t print them.
The film is often shot in close-up of a woman who was one of the most adored yet enigmatic of the 20th century. At a press conference today, Larrain said, “I remember the first day of shooting, we had set up the camera and (Natalie) just kept walking towards the camera — and that was the movie. I wanted to be very, very close and intimate… I believe (Jackie) was someone incredibly mysterious; one of the most unknown known people.”
“I don’t think the movie will deliver all the answers,” Larrain added. “It needs an audience to digest it. Even after the movie, you still don’t get who she was; I found beauty in that.”
Portman said playing Jackie was “right up there” with her most challenging parts. “It felt like the most dangerous… Everyone knows her or has an idea of her… We tried to get to some things that people could get past and believe I was Jackie.”
There are scenes recreated from the famous tour Jackie gave of the White House in 1962 which depict her behind-the-scenes as cautious and hesitant, but also set up her desire to keep history alive on Pennsylvania Avenue. That feeds into some of the film’s scenes post-assassination and how JFK will be remembered, and by extension how she will be.
Portman was asked about any similarities she found between herself and the former First Lady. She deferred to Larrain who said, “It’s not about how they look. When somebody is so well-known as Natalie and is playing somebody as well-known as Jackie; (it’s about) when does the audience believe it.”
He continued, “Sometimes I feel you can be at risk when you try to make the actor look just like the person and you work just on that and then the movie starts and it’s like a photo. Natalie does a great imitation, but it could not sit there. With the tools of cinema, we tried to create an illusion.”
Speaking of playing Jackie as almost two distinct people — the public and private persona — Portman said she and Larrain had done a lot of research. “We noticed when looking at the existing film and audio tape of Jackie, her voice and presence were very different when it was a public interview. She got a lot more coy and shy. There were a lot of small details.” In 1964, she had recorded a series of interviews with historian and former Special Assistant to the President, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Portman noted that in those tapes, “You can hear drinks and ice clinking in the background and she had a much different tone and quality of voice.”
“That’s a big part of the conflict,” Portman said. “When you know you’re a symbol, people see you as something from the outside. How can you maintain your humanity?” There’s a scene in the film that perfectly depicts this she noted, “She was a mannequin for a lot of people.”
John Hurt plays a priest in the film to whom Jackie confides before going to the Arlington Cemetery burial site for her late husband and the two children she had earlier lost, Arabella and Patrick. Of those discussions, where Portman’s Jackie speaks frankly and uses the priest almost as confessor, she said today, “It’s so many things at once that she’s dealing with. The loss of a loved one leads to a questoning of faith, but this happens in such a sudden, violent, tragic, traumatic way and it’s shocking when those kinds of questions come up so suddenly.”
Larrain noted, “When you deal with something like this, you have all the official information and records but there is a ton of things you would never know because it happened behind closed doors. So we tried to sneak a camera inside there and create a fiction.”
The eponymous tune from the Lerner and Loewe production of Camelot is used more than once in the film, and truly packs an emotional punch. Larrain said, “We used Camelot to explain what it means. Jackie was a queen. What happened here is they were able to create an illusion of royalty. She was a queen without a throne.”
Jackie hails from Jackie Productions Ltd, Darren Aronofsky’s Protozoa, LD Entertainment, Larrain’s Fabula, Wild Bunch and Why Not Productions. Insiders has international sales. There is currently no U.S. distributor. It next screens in Toronto.