Viewfinder Magazine

‘This will be your version of what happened’: Performance, Perspective and Control in Jackie (2015)
by Dr Ellen Wright, De Montfort University


 

Pablo Larraín’s biopic, Jackie, is an unsettlingly personal account of Jackie Kennedy’s experience of the days following the assassination of her husband, President John F Kennedy. As a biopic it raises complex issues around authenticity, performance, memory and control. Whilst as a female-centred text, it presents an alternative, personal perspective on a now globally witnessed, frequently depicted event, lending itself perfectly to an exploration of memory, female subjectivity and agency. Rather than taking a traditional approach to history, described by Peter Burke as ‘a view from above… concentrated on the great deeds of great men,’ (1) this film upends ideas of history, deliberately foregrounding subjectivity and female perspective in its construction of political history.

Key to this fascinating exploration of memory is the film’s melodramatic mode, its preoccupation with identity (both personal and national) and how this links to authenticity, Natalie Portman’s distinctive lead performance, the soundtrack, the fragmentary narrative and, as Jackie is a historical biopic, the use of reconstruction and re-enactment.

It is first worth considering Portman’s distinctive, Oscar-nominated performance, because of the way in which she embodied Kennedy. As Mark Kermode observed for The Guardian:

‘With her breathy vowels and strangely stagey expressions, I confess that Portman’s mannered performance seemed at first too arch to be engaging.’ (2)

However, as Kermode goes on to state, ‘only on second viewing did I realise that her Jackie was not alienating but alienated.’ If we consider Portman’s performance in dialogue with the score, whose sudden, disconcerting drops in pitch bring to mind the disorientating waves of grief-stricken nausea, these elements combine to produce a ‘felt’ or embodied response in the viewer, similar to the performative and emotional excess found in melodrama. Indeed, my own first experience of this film was alone, in a cinema auditorium, with its booming surround sound and my response was overwhelmingly visceral, vicarious trauma that left me feeling I had experienced a horror film, rather than the weepie I had anticipated when I bought my ticket.

In light of the above, Portman’s non-naturalistic acting style can be reframed as in synch with the text’s broader, melodramatic emotional register. As a historical biopic though, preoccupation with the spectacle of emotional and bodily excess conflicts with the popular notion of history as somehow objective. As Linda Williams notes; ‘melodramas are deemed excessive for their gender-and sex-linked pathos, for their naked displays of emotion’ (3) and as Jane Shattuc observes, this and the ‘traditional modernist or masculine disdain for melodrama’ are ‘problem[s] that feminists have failed to resolve’ (4) in terms of them being taken seriously. As Nowell-Smith observes, melodrama is a stylised representational form, that ‘signifies’ ‘social and psychic determinations’ rather than reflecting them. (5) Simply put, melodramatic texts are preoccupied with subjective and emotional realism, over the markers of a classic realist text and herein lies the problem when recreating history, which is commonly associated with rational objectivity (despite much evidence to the contrary). Furthermore, political history is dominated by men. Yet in Jackie, we see the perspective of the ‘great woman behind the great man’, working to secure her husband’s legacy, making this very much a ‘woman’s’ film’; a narrative that, in Basinger’s terms, places ‘at the centre of [its] universe a female who is trying to deal with the emotional, social, and psychological problems that are specifically connected to the fact that she is a woman’. (6)

Structurally and stylistically, Jackie is deliberately disorienting and disjointed. Its plot is told in snatches, interweaving the contemporary, with the recent past, along with scenes from Kennedy’s more distant past, which include her husband. The experience is subjective rather than objective, located in the domestic, personal sphere rather than the public and concerned with exploring the sensation or experience of Kennedy’s private trauma rather than the ‘facts’ of a broader cultural moment.

A focus upon Kennedy’s performance as well as Portman’s is also woven into the film’s structure. It’s central concern is with Kennedy’s attempts to control her media perception, which can be seen in a fractious interview with a journalist (presumably Theodore H. White, who wrote the article ‘An Epilogue’ in the December 6th edition of Life magazine, where Kennedy famously compared the Kennedy administration with the mythological kingdom of Camelot) which becomes a key narrative device, repeatedly returning the viewer to Kennedy’s bewildered present. In these fraught exchanges with the reporter, Kennedy writes and rewrites events in her own words. As the reporter assures her ‘This will be your version of what happened’ Kennedy makes clear that even as any public power she possessed diminishes, she is intent upon using any remaining influence she has to deliver and a convincing public performance, with a view to crafting a legacy in the form of a glamorous myth of Camelot around herself, her husband and his political administration.

But the fact remains that as the nation’s ‘First Lady,’ Jackie was not her own woman, rather a symbolic extension of her husband. As a public figure, the First Lady symbolises institutions such as nation, state, political allegiance, religion, marriage and family and as such she reinforces these institutions and the ideals that underpin them. By examining this First Lady’s subjective experience in the context of a biopic, director Larrain can, by implication, critique the institutions and ideals Kennedy represents, something he has a history of, having previously directed a trilogy of films that critiqued the Chilean regime of General Pinochet.

Furthermore, as a pop culture icon, Kennedy embodies the tension between public and private. In this film and in real life, Portman and Kennedy’s physical bodies bore much of the symbolic weight of national grief. If we think of the iconic images of Kennedy, kneeling to kiss her husband’s flag-draped coffin, or outside the White House, holding her two children’s hands in readiness for the funeral procession, these are intentionally emotive gestures. She performs these acts for herself, but also on behalf of the nation. As the reporter assures Kennedy at the end of their interview:

‘Losing a president is like losing a father and you were mother to all of us. The entire country watched the funeral... Decades from now, people will remember your dignity and majesty. They’ll remember you.’

Elsewhere, a reconstruction of the 1962 TV special A Tour of the White House with Mrs John F Kennedy repeatedly interrupts the film’s plot with another layer of mediation and performance. The original TV special was aired on CBS, NBC and ABC and showcased the renovations and redecoration Kennedy personally oversaw in the White House, carefully positioning her as a model First Lady, archetypal home maker, possessor of excellent taste, moderniser and yet protector of American cultural and historical identity.

The original black-and-white archive material from this TV special is seamlessly intertwined with restaged footage, with Portman in Kennedy’s place. Portman’s attention to detail; mastering Kennedy’s idiom, mimicking her movements and delivering a convincing performance that is in places virtually identical to the original, combines to create a deeply convincing and as such problematically ‘authentic’ reproduction.

Yet as Custen observes, the Hollywood biopic has always had a troublesome relationship with authenticity, shaping or even altering public perceptions of historical events. Rather than truth, instead what Hollywood biopics offer are ‘accessible versions of history’ (7) making use of what Collins terms as ‘eclectic irony’ to ‘replay history through a host of textual traces’ (8) but the unfortunate side effect of this is that, as Grainge notes, this ‘rearticulate[s]…. [and thus alters] cultural memories.’ (9)

In her study of ‘postfeminist biopics’ Polaschek draws upon Vincendeau’s work upon the ‘postmodern recycling, pastiche, self-referentiality, irony and allusion’ in contemporary heritage films and her claims that these films’ techniques ‘function to foreground the subjectivity and artifice involved in recreating history on film.’ (10) These self-conscious techniques are at play in the documentary and other segments of Jackie.

As Polaschek notes, the postfeminist biopic layers the ‘historical context in which the film is set, and the contemporary context in which it was produced, as well as the intervening debates that have occurred about the meaning and significance of the featured protagonists.’ (11) Rather than single, unified history, these films offer, in Marcia Landy’s terms, ‘sheets of history’ (12) with layers of signification, from the past and the present. They possess a ‘plasticity’ (13), utilising signifiers and stories from the past to offer relevant, postmodern, feminist allegories about the present.

As such Jackie can be understood as a comment upon women’s place and role in history, (and how they are often written out of it) through a tragic allegory of squandered potential that comments upon the ebb and flow of America’s societal advancement - that cyclic development through progress and retrenchment – the inevitable ‘backlash’ - with Camelot presented here as a beacon of modernity, liberalism and advancement, epitomised in the lyrics from a song from the Camelot musical which Kennedy supposedly quoted in her interview with White, ‘Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.’

Looking beyond our protagonist’s experience, the Kennedy administration and Kennedy’s brutal death were pivotal moments in shaping America’s national identity, multifariously understood across the political spectrum as contested sites of progress and decline, trauma and release by the competing forces of liberalism and conservatism.

While our current moment sees identity politics rage in the news, and feminism supposedly entered a fourth wave, the Western political sphere is still disproportionately dominated by men. In Jackie we see politics from a female protagonist’s perspective and it is noticeable that the era in which this film is set is the period in which a second, distinct feminist wave emerged. As such, Jackie could therefore be seen to be offering an allegory upon the political climate, in which the film was produced and released.

Jackie Kennedy may have been a problematic figure, she may not have identified as feminist, and sadly, in real terms, nor was she even powerful in any real sense, but the context of this film, she is our ‘way in’ to larger events, a means through which we can examine broader issues around women in the public sphere, around authorship and control, around personal and national identity and around the subjective nature of history.

Through the reconstruction of the assassination and events leading to the assassination, of the funeral procession and A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, the blurred line between fiction and fact is woven into Jackie's narrative structure, raising issues of around veracity and perspective, nostalgia and control, all still hot topics on the current US news agenda. In shifting between these various modes, realisms and occurrences, Jackie encourages a reflexive, self-aware engagement with the text and the truth it purports to present, balancing emotional realism, subjective experience, and received representations of the past, with historical accuracy.


References

(1) http://xroads.virginia.edu/~DRBR/burkenh.html [accessed 09/06/2021]

(2) https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jan/22/jackie-review-natalie-portman-pablo-lerrain-mica-levi [accessed 03/04/2017]

(3) Williams, L. ‘Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess’ in Film Quarterly. Vol. 44, No. 4 (Summer, 1991), p.3

(4) Shattuc, J. (1994) ‘Having a Good Cry Over The Colour Purple’ in Bratton, J. (ed) Melodrama: stage, Picture, Screen. London: BFI.

(5) Nowell-Smith, G (1987) ‘Minelli and Melodrama’ in Gledhill, C. (ed.) Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film. London: BFI. p.70

(6) Basinger, J. (1994) A Women’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 London: Chatto and Windus.

(7)Custen, G. F. (1992) Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History. NJ: Rutgers University Press. p. 34

(8) Grainge, P. (2003) Memory and Popular Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press p.208

(9) Grainge, p.208

(10) Polaschek, B. (2013) The Postfeminist Biopic: Narrating the Lives of Plath, Kahlo, Woolf and Austen. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan P. 34

(11) Polaschek, p. 149-50

(12) Landy, M. (1996) Cinematic Uses of The Past. Minneapolis: university of Minnesota Press p. 153

(13) Landy, p. 190