More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
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Right from the start of the film, Natalie Portman’s detail-rooted response, as Jackie Kennedy, to the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy – to losing him, and to what his assassination means, because he was also the 35th President of the United States of America – is prefigured and then accentuated by ‘a dying fall’ in Mica Levi’s score¹ :
As we proceed with the elements of Levi’s sound-world and with Jackie (2016), they are multi-layered, with, for example, a cello-part that alludes to when Pablo Casals performed at The White House (as depicted), and, with some material, Levi sometimes seems to be subtly evoking the stateliness of many tributes in music to JFK² (if not to the twelve-tone Elegy for J.F.K. (1964) that Stravinsky composed [Cathy Berberian, and three clarinet soloists from the Rome Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Pierre Boulez, via YouTube] ?).
Expectations of Grace of Monaco (2014) put right by @everyfilmneil's encouraging review, this was screen-filling intensity and immersion.— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) February 22, 2017
As mentioned, Neil White’s (@everyfilmneil’s) long-running cinema-blog [everyfilm.blogspot.co.uk], where he sets himself the challenge every year of watching every film that has any release in the UK [starting from 1 January, Neil’s reviews number 87 at the time of writing], had very usefully set out what this film is, and so caused it to be listed to be watched :
Portman captures Jackie's essence in a film which is quite different to any which will be released this year. […]
It ought to be made clear that this is not a biopic of Jackie's life with JFK nor does it explore her further life and marriage to Aristotle Onassis.
Instead, it concentrates on the immediate aftermath of the assassination with occasional flashbacks to the shooting and a live TV programme in 1961 in which she revealed changes she had made to the White House.
Although Jackie is seen through the relative calm of being framed by a fictionalized newspaper interview³ (one of several ‘frames’ within the film, another of which also involves a significant conversation³), the scenes within its chosen strands speak of Jackie’s deep anxiety at the death of her husband, and at The White House, following her life with him there. As alluded to by Neil White, these are lives effectively lived out on t.v. : when Jackie Kennedy gives a tour of what Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) suggests she call ‘the people’s house’, it is largely on her own, because it has been thought best for her husband only to join her at the end, and we see all the apparatus of the static and wheeled cameras that make this welcome possible, and, behind the illusion, Nancy mouthing reminders and encouragements to smile…
Director Pablo Larraín and director of photography Stéphane Fontaine have given the meeting with the journalist a very different ambience (with its peaceful location on the edge of water, at a named property in Massachusetts), so the times when we are with them cause other parts of the film – whose shooting-style and camera-movement make them feel highly tense and claustrophobic – more manageable⁴. For us, as much as for Jackie Kennedy : nonetheless, the cumulative effect of the motifs of Mica Levi’s music – and finally seeing the horror, near the end of the film, of being at John Kennedy’s side during the shooting – leave us unsettled.
The grief, the guilt and the anger at God, which we hear her ruminate and rage on in the moments with The Priest⁴ (John Hurt), are very much her own (could she have shielded her husband, and where was God in it all ?), and we have a very definite sense of place. Yet, in both of these ‘frames’, time seems deliberately elongated and a little unreal, and, when we end up at night-fall, it seems even more unworldly…
Maybe the anxiety, which in Jackie Kennedy has her mind concentrate on all that is specific (as a way of trying to cope with the reality of what has happened), is not being portrayed because she is different, or set apart from, our experience. The particularities of her hurt and pain apart, can we identify with moments as nonsensical as someone insisting that an autopsy has to take place, because it is ‘required by law’, but not being able – or not being willing – to say what an autopsy entails ?
Is anything familiar in that nightmarish moment of her rushing to the doors behind which the autopsy is taking place, only to be caught and turned back by Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) ?
¹ That straine agen, it had a dying fall.
² Though, necessarily, avoiding the obvious sound of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings [Leonard Bernstein conducts The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, via YouTube], which was broadcast over the television at the announcement of Kennedy’s death. (It was an arrangement that Barber had made, in the same year as his String Quartet, Op. 11 (1936), of its slow movement, and which had been heard when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death was announced, and on many public occasions since.)
We read in Wikipedia® :The Adagio for Strings was one of John F. Kennedy’s favorite pieces of music. Jackie Kennedy arranged a concert the Monday after his death with the National Symphony Orchestra and they played to an empty hall.
³ Neil White comments on this point in his review (please see main text, above), 'Director Pablo Larrain based the movie around an interview which Mrs Kennedy conducted with Life Magazine's Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. who is played by Billy Crudup but not named.' On the film's web-page on IMDb (@IMDb), Billy Crudup is generically credited as ‘The Journalist’, John Hurt as ‘The Priest’.
⁴ Not the least of the ambiguity, with The Journalist (and The Priest ?), is what, of what we see Jackie Kennedy speak, she is actually saying to him, and what saying, but forbidding him to report (since she had said, at the outset, that she would be editing as they go) – but also the uncertainties between them all along, such as when she asks whether he is giving her career advice, or suggesting that she should hold a party at the house, or matter-of-factly telling him, I don’t smoke, so directly denying what we see her do.
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)