From the dissonant minor chords of its opening music, “Jackie” puts the audience on notice that this isn’t going to be a comfort-blanket biopic. Those violins sound less like musical notes than icy shards, and when the picture comes up, we see the film’s title character, Jacqueline Kennedy, not serenely swathed in Paris couture or in a prim Chanel suit, but in an unnervingly tight close-up, red-eyed, sobbing and on the verge of coming undone.
Rest assured, the iconic version of the 20th century’s most revered and remembered first lady is on display in “Jackie.” But in the hands of filmmaker Pablo Larraín and actress Natalie Portman, even the most familiar images feel strangely refracted, simultaneously of a piece with the woman we came to know as Jackie Kennedy and distorted beyond recognition. “I’ve lost track of what was real and what was performance,” Portman’s Jackie says, articulating the cardinal themes of a film that seeks to pay homage to a woman enduring unspeakable grief, and to interrogate the Camelot myth she so skillfully crafted in the wake of that loss.
“Jackie,” which Larraín directed from a script by Noah Oppenheim, begins a week after John F. Kennedy’s assassination Nov. 22, 1963, when Jacqueline conducted an interview for Life magazine with Theodore White. In the film, the unnamed journalist, played by Billy Crudup, is a composite of White, historian Arthur Schlesinger and author William Manchester, as well as a group of skeptics who believed that the pageantry of Kennedy’s funeral was out of line with his actual accomplishments. The interview — conducted at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port — forms the spine of “Jackie,” which toggles back and forth between the taping of the “Tour of the White House” special the first lady filmed in 1961, the events in Dallas and the days immediately following the assassination.
What emerges is an unsettling, almost hallucinogenic study in contradiction: Portman’s Jackie is soft yet steely, vulnerable yet shrewd, propelled by a fierce, unyielding rage, yet superbly controlled and controlling. She exerts complete editorial control over what will and will not appear in the article. After recalling the assassination in graphic, emotionally wrenching detail, she turns icy: “Don’t think for a second that I’m going to let you publish that.” And those cigarettes she lights compulsively throughout the afternoon? “I don’t smoke,” she says.
The line gets a rare laugh in a rigorously beautiful film that’s been exquisitely designed and filmed to merge artifice with actual footage of the “Tour of the White House” special and JFK’s funeral. Portman, her hair swooped into Jacqueline’s signature bouffant, her posture perfectly capturing her character’s dancer-like poise, delivers a performance for the ages, never flinching as the camera moves in for close-ups that begin to feel intrusive and unseemly. When her Jackie finally gives into grief — which includes the loss of an infant son just a few months earlier — the viewer might question whether Oppenheim and Larraín are being unforgivably opportunistic as they allow viewers to wallow in what is clearly a thoroughly researched but still speculative portrait of one of history’s most private people.
At one point, Portman staggers through the White House, sipping vodka and popping sedatives, smoking and trying on gowns as Richard Burton trills the title song from “Camelot.” Weird and impressionistic, it’s the dark mirror-image of the White House tour, as a woman bids goodbye to a home that was never really hers in the first place. Later, Larraín puts us in the car with her in Dallas, so we can experience the trauma that’s been kept at a safe distance in the Zapruder film.
Far from gratuitous, these scenes pulse with emotion, as Portman cycles through every beat with ferocious commitment and brio. It might take a few moments to adjust to the distinctive New England cadence, dabbed with shy, Marilyn-esque mannerisms, but she finally creates a character who fights her in-laws and “Lyndon’s people” for an open-air funeral procession, not out of vulgar self-regard, but because she understands in her bones the importance of ritual and material culture, stagecraft and narrative that today would be called “optics.”
Superbly shot and accompanied by an alternately angular and lyrical score by Mica Levi, “Jackie” would have been an exceptionally smart, intriguing movie as an astutely conceived, well-crafted meditation on political mythmaking. In Larraín and Portman’s hands, it becomes something deeper and more emotionally potent. On its surface, “Jackie” is a portrait of masterful style and storytelling, as one of the world’s most admired first ladies determinedly solidifies her dead husband’s legacy. But at its core, it’s about a young, strong, unimaginably frightened woman seizing the opportunity to live a life she can finally call her own.
R. At area theaters. Contains brief strong violence and obscenity. 100 minutes.