Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 11, 2016 2:34 pm 
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A glitzy simulacrum of a great event

By bringing out two movies in one year, one in English with Hollywood stars, Chilean director Pablo Larraín shows his ambition - and he's overreaching. His Neruda is a surreal fantasy about his country's most famous literary figure, with Gael García Bernal, left over from his earlier No (where he first started to lose inspiration), running around as a dapper little detective. Jackie is a project that's equally ambitious - perhaps in global terms, more so. It 's about a major, shocking event in American history. It's also another Oscar bid for its star, Natalie Portman, who does an impersonation of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, the look, the manner, the voice.

And yet nothing Larraín has done since has equaled the dark, creepy performances of the great Chilean actor Alfredo Castro and the director's admirably pessimistic second and third films, Tony Manero and Post Mortem. As the filmmaker's reputation has soared, the originality of his work has diminished. Jackie is a flashy effort, as audacious as it is accomplished. And yet, if you look closely, it is contains no revelations. Like many movies, it's essentially a play, with unusually beautiful and realistic visuals that do not add to the meaning.

It's a bold move on Larraín's part to switch to English with filming the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath from the point of view of Jacqueline Kennedy, and the look of the whole film glitters through the brilliant work of cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, who worked with Jacques Audiard, with Matt Ross on Captain Fantastic, and recently on Verhoeven's Elle. In a sense the ghoulish, Madame Tussaud attention to detail fits well with Larraín's early films. The waxworks realism alternates with moments that are sometimes surreal, weaving together diverse scenes. Editing juggles back and forth between a flashback simulation - but all of this is simulation - of Mrs. Kennedy's hour-long black-and-white TV tour of the White House, seen as stilted and almost comically nervous; the moment of the shooting in the motorcade in Dallas, the blood-spattered pink Chanel suit that she refused to take off for the photographers ("I want them to see what they've done"); the hours between the autopsy and the funeral; a later meeting with an Irish Catholic priest (John Hurt); and, in an understandable but still probably pretty unwise (and awkwardly executed) frame tale of historian Theodore H. White's lengthy interview with the widow at Hyannis Port for Life magazine a week later. The bloody, explosive moment of the killing and the interment at Arlington National Cemetery are saved for the last minutes. If you consult White's notes of the actual interview, Mrs. Kennedy actually launched into gruesomely vivid detail of spattered brains and blood in its first moments, but not in the film version.

But the revelation - that "Jackie" paid a lot of attention to how history would view her husband and the style of his departure, such as the Lincoln-style horse-drawn bier and the funeral procession on foot behind it, and the dramatic location of JFK's grave on an Arlington hill apart; and overall her desire that the Kennedy administration be seen as a kind of "Camelot" - just isn't a revelation at all, even though details of the White interview weren't revealed till a year after the death of Mrs. Onassis. It's just what everyone knows who has the slightest knowledge of the events. The movie saves for last "news" that lands with a thud.

What the movie does extraordinarily well is the trappings. The furniture, above all the upholstery, and all the decor of the White House and Hyannis Port look just right. The early-Sixties clothes of both the men and the women seem flawless, except for White's inappropriate loose tie for the interview (that would never have been). Larraín also recreates photographs of the Johnsons and Kennedys and the whole funeral, down to Caroline and John-John walking down the stairs with their mother.

Portman will be congratulated for her recreation of the First Lady's voice and accent. Unfortunately such efforts are doomed to failure. She can't get the lady's beauty, elegance, and inner calm, or the subtly concealed insecurity behind that facade.

The film justifies its focus by reflecting, as again we know who have followed these events, that Jacqueline Kennedy behaved with courage and authority under stress. The most impressive note is her anger. It's hard to know what the family will think of the montage in which she wanders the White House in a string of fancy outfits drunk and stoned on pills and listening to the "Camelot" record, or how much the real Jacqueline cried or didn't cry. It's impossible not to link this performance by Natalie Portman with her Oscar-winning turn in Darren Aronofsky's over-the-top psychological thriller Black Swan. The connectiion explains why Portman seems to be trying too hard at many points. She was not, like her subject, to the manner born. She does a plucky job. She's literally not big enough for the role.

Jackie is a glitzy cinematic bauble. It gets right so many of the things a movie can get right about a time and place. But its revelations are empty. And whether or not Natalie Portman pulls it off, other actors are at best approximate. Peter Sarsgaard isn't right at all as Bobby Kennedy. Greta Gerwig is so well disguised it hardly matters, though she's an odd choce for social secretary Nancy Tuckerman. John Carroll Lynch looks more like a thug than Lyndon Johnson, Beth Grant is barely close to Lady Bird Johnson. Billy Crudup isn't even billed as Theodore H. White, only "The Journalist," but his character is too bold and aggressive. So it goes. This is a simulacrum whose accuracies only show up how far off it is from the real thing. Maybe next time Larraín will do something lower key and more authentic. He has our attention.

Jackie, 99 mins., debuted at Venice 7 Sept. 2016; 14 other festivals including Toronto and New York. US Theatrical release beginning 2 Dec. UK 20 Jan. 2017. Metacritic rating 80%.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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