Jackie, much more than some other films, relies upon its visual design to underpin its narrative intentions. Your previous work with directors like Bertolucci (Dreamers) and Caro & Jeunet (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children) attests to your talent for collaborating with directors who put design at the forefront of their films. In Jackie, this is a fundamental requirement. So much of what physically appears within the frame is essential to appreciating the core of this complex and fascinating story.
It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that what you see on the screen is anything but important, but the truth is, for many films, production design is nothing but a collection of props: we’re in New York so there have to be exteriors showing specific landmarks, or the film is set in the seventies so someone has to be wearing a pair of oversized bell bottoms. But none of these elements necessarily speak to a film’s central themes. Instead they’re window dressing; they’re used to create a patina of authenticity. Jackie is much more deliberate and calculated than that—every prop, every dress, every location contributes to the intent of the film.
Jackie is a lesson in how a communications strategy can shape public perception. Centred around JFK’s assassination and his funeral, it’s a formalist exercise that focuses on Jacqueline Kennedy and her struggle to shape her husband’s legacy. An example of this layered calculation is how a scene early in the film is composed: Billy Crudup, the reporter who is tasked with interviewing Jackie (who is portrayed with a stiff and anguished brilliance by Natalie Portman) comes to the door and Jackie answers; each part of their conversation is a single shot in which the characters speak directly to the camera. This kind of throwback to a sixties television convention is initially jarring, but serves as proof that this film is meticulously shaped to create a very specific atmosphere.
From the very first frame, director Pablo Larraín makes clear that this will be a mannered portrayal of one of contemporary history’s most pivotal moments. Each second is deliberately composed; the costume design, locations, set design – even the hair and makeup – feel utterly authentic to the time and also underpin an aesthetic that is precisely in tune with the film makers broader purpose: we are meant to understand what it is to see history being intentionally shaped, rather than simply recorded.
There are intimations throughout of Jackie’s profound appreciation for how history is written in the television age. As she and Bobby Kennedy ride with JFK’s body to the hospital (and his imminent autopsy), Jackie quizzes the driver as to whether he knows who McKinley and Garfield are. When he pleads ignorance, she asks if he remembers Lincoln. Of course he does. The point she makes is that all three are assassinated presidents, but only one lingers in the nation’s collective, historical memory.
Jackie’s single purpose from that moment onward is to make sure her husband is remembered. She does this through a semi-catatonic state fuelled by cigarettes, alcohol, and pills. She manoeuvres around various government officials, including Lyndon Johnson and even her own brother-in-law, to orchestrate the kind of spectacle that television loves, and, in doing so, she cement her husband’s place in history.
These moments are what’s recorded, and therefore become history. She understood the power of new media (in this case television) and how it could be shaped and exploited. The film itself mirrors this aesthetic, creating an exacting portrait of Jackie that is laser-focused in its intentions. In essence, we will only ever see the Jacqueline Kennedy that Larraín wants us to see: a woman who is thought of as an ingenue, a cardboard cut-out, but who understands far better than anyone else what will preserve her husband’s place in history.
Even her interview with Crudup is punctuated by her insistence that she shape and edit his prose. She shares all sorts of unsavoury details, afterwards reminding Crudup that none of this will see print. Portman gives a singular performance, her grief and near hysteria masking a calculating and savage intellect. It is really something to behold.
I don’t often connect with this sort of cold, intentionally constructed film. But by the end of Jackie I was profoundly engaged, largely because your approach to production design was more than just an exercise in technique. The most affecting example of this is Jackie choosing JFK’s gravesite in Arlington cemetery: she rejects the initial site and slogs through the mud and rain and gravestones (eventually ditching her shoes) until she finds a place so perfect it seems a painting. The final shot in the scene, in which she’s standing in front of the site—is so beautiful it almost brought me to tears.
Jackie manages something that few films do—it integrates design, narrative, and performance into a coherent whole that represents a very specific point of view.