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Arts and Entertainment

Natalie Portman Plays 'Jackie' In One Big Shallow Affair

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Jacqueline Kennedy may have spoken in a soft, almost hushed whisper, low-toned with a hint of a drawl. But Jackie, which depicts a week of her most public moment, might be one of the loudest films of the year. The camera rushes around the first lady as she strolls aimlessly through the empty halls of the White House, the close-ups of her face engulf the frame, and the editing diffracts a smooth visual rhythm into a jagged portraiture as if it was a temporal Picasso. The point is obvious—in the few days that followed John F. Kennedy's assassination, the quiet Queen of Camelot finally employed the power of her office to put on one last spectacle. Her reasons remain diffuse—vanity, sorrow, insanity, patriotism, love—but they all point out that power is an image.

But rather than reveal that conclusion, Jackie shouts its ideas from the opening salvo, all underscored by Mica Levi's bellowing violins (she previously scored Under The Skin). Jackie aims for Art with a Capital A—a disjointed narrative told in flashbacks with the camera flailing around in every direction. It's the point, you see, that a film about image be imagistic. Or Natalie Portman's technically pitch-perfect performance only amount to a series of tics to represent how Mrs. Kennedy constructed herself. Or the whole film should scream of authenticity while not expressing any viewpoint. It's not that Jackie is too artful; it's that eschewing convention only emphasizes the shallowness of the work.

What would have made a more nuanced version of what should be an interesting tale? Most of the blame lies square at the feet of Noah Oppenheim's screenplay (which beguilingly won an award at the Venice Film Festival), which diffuses the first lady's life into a few choice moments, using her character as a mere vehicle for its ideas. Mrs. Kennedy literally exclaims to a reporter, "History. Identity. Beauty," if you were looking for term paper ideas. In fact, if you ever get lost at a point in the narrative of Jackie, another character will come out of the woodwork to explain its meaning. John Hurt as a priest not only recalls a parable but explains its literal connection to Kennedy's life; the film not only plays "Camelot" twice, but allows her to explains its exact meaning after she notes, "One last thing—and this is the most important." Because the film barely forms anything of a suspenseful narrative (just how will those funeral arrangements play out!?), it simply states a number of themes as opposed to embodying them.

Jackie's air of steely yet facetious melancholy places the blame at another culprit: director Pablo Larraín. Larraín makes unconventional choices but without constructing them toward any purpose. The Chilean director of NO, an entertaining trifle about an advertising campaign overthrowing Pinochet, makes his American debut here. Like his other films (including this month's Neruda), there is an air of intensity thanks both to the formal gimmickry and the attention to histrionic performance. But part of what made NO such a thrillingly unique story was its conventional simplicity—an underdog story only pointedly different thanks to being shot with VHS cameras. In Jackie, Larraín compels himself toward a symphonic mix of intense close-ups and hurried camera movements, not to mention an editing scheme that constantly speeds up the proceedings with intensity, even in what should be more reflective scenes. Larraín seems compelled to make it seem like a lot is happening in Jackie when nothing is. Even the look of the film, shot on 16mm by DP Stéphane Fontaine, feels pointed but rather unexpressive. Ironically, Jackie almost calls for a more conventional portrait in which its complex elements could reveal themselves instead of shotgunned throughout.

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But at the center of Jackie is Portman, putting on a master class of techniques that do little to create an interior. Portman gives nowhere near the worst performance in Jackie—Peter Sarsgaard oscillates between an embarrassingly broad accent and otherwise dull line readings as Bobby Kennedy—but the intensity of the focus on her performance only heightens its weaknesses. Caught in so many close-ups, she twitches her throat, marks her cheeks with individual tears, and cracks her voice at the most appropriate melodramatic moments. Ultimately she's constrained by a character who feels only half-thought out.

There's one moment so pure in Jackie, which suggests a deeper, more complex (and ultimately malicious) film. Riding home from the cemetery, Jackie spots dresses in a storefront window that are clearly based on her style. She sneaks an all too brief smile through the car window, a gesture that suggests a darker film—one that would acknowledge her power and place, exploring the crooked rivalry between The Best and The Brightest. The film here only passingly acknowledges it. And instead of pouring tears, Portman could spill blood. Jackie aims to be unconventional, but its respectability is its ultimate downfall.

Jackie opens Friday.

Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.

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