Chile is not all lovely wine, productive copper mines, and functional yet attractive attacking football – in recent years its diverse, powerful and cultured arthouse cinema industry has enjoyed a strong and unignorable presence on the international film festival circuit. Picking up nominations and awards at various prestigious festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, and Sundance, Chile’s national cinema has perhaps never had such broadly international support and recognition.
From old veterans such as the velvet-voiced documentary-maker Patricio Guzmán to the brash, impetuous voices of the younger generation such as Sebastián Silva (who gives few shits about tonal consistency, and it’s fantastic), Chile’s cinema industry is booming.
The man at the helm of this burgeoning movement is directing, writing and producing visionary, and general cinematic powerhouse Pablo Larraín. His work is characterised by an artful and heightened visual style and offers a fiercely political take on Chile’s past and present struggles, whether addressing it directly or via allegory.
With six features as a director and many more as a producer, Larraín is prolific, and consistently at the cutting-edge of the medium. Not only this, but his works are all marked by a strangeness and a lack of compromise that befits the unique character and wonder of his native country. All of which is to say that his “out-there” and distinctively un-Hollywood cinematic voice is what makes Larraín such a perfect choice to bring a fresh take to the period biopic, that most staid and oft-predictable of genres. As Larraín’s first film in the English language, it was bound to keep hold of what makes him such a unique and pioneering directorial talent. Enter Natalie Portman, composer Mica Levi, and Jackie.
Taken simply at its logline, Jackie sounds like just about the most safe, US awards voter-friendly proposition imaginable: a biopic about Jacqueline Kennedy during the weeks following the world-shattering assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, in which she struggles to come to terms with her loss, and the sudden jolt to her political and personal lives. So far, so Hollywood. It’s easy to picture what Jackie could have become; close your eyes and imagine the swelling strings, a safe and hagiographic script, and a strong if impression-like central performance. But the more talented names were announced as attached to Jackie, the more edgy, bold and straight-up interesting this interpretation sounded like it would become.
Which isn’t to say there haven’t been some interesting period biopics in modern times – the likes of Soderbergh’s Guevara two-parter Che, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Bennett Miller’s Capote and Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs all achieve interesting things within the intrinsic limitations of the genre, but by and large these films tend to fall into the unadventurous, awards-grabbing arena in which the likes of The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game and The Iron Lady operate. Immaculately made, powerfully performed, and more than a little bit conservative. And as relatively daring as the films in that first list are, none of them come close to quite how anomalous Jackie is as an example of this genre.
A large part of Jackie‘s strangeness derives from its grief-stricken and deeply unconventional score – the decision to hire composer Mica Levi to score instantly sets the film apart from its contemporaries. Levi, previously of the band Micachu and the Shapes, sets the tone as one of jittery discomfort rather than one more plainly emotive.
That her only previous feature work is Jonathan Glazer’s otherworldly arthouse masterpiece Under the Skin is telling – all screechy strings and disconcerting percussive stabs, her work on that film sets the precedent for which she was tasked with making Jackie’s journey as unnerving and discomfiting as possible. The fact that such an eerie and untraditional score is in with a strong shout at mainstream gong glory this awards season is an impressive feat.
The key element that sets Jackie apart from the crowd, however, is the formally adventurous yet restrained cinematic language utilised by Larraín and DP Stéphane Fontaine (Jacques Audiard’s regular guy, in addition to work on Elle and Captain Fantastic). Their camera glides morosely through each scene or tableau where another’s might sit still; it is unafraid of looming over its characters, eavesdropping and intruding upon their most intimate moments, when another may hold back to more appreciate an ornate bit of production or costume design.
Make no mistake, the camera in Jackie is an intrusive one – what were once private thoughts and feelings are magnified a hundred-fold, as Portman’s hypnotic and scarred performance is studied by the lens with meticulous and uncomfortable detail. This closeness brings an unusual level of familiarity with Jackie‘s subjects – those distanced by both history and the oft-seen images available of them from the time, are brought into sharp relief by the camera, which wanders into groups of people as if trying to interrupt the conversation.
It’s an unsettling effect which when combined with Levi’s score and Portman’s uncanny turn (not to mention the sumptuous period design), gives us a level of personal and emotional access most biopics struggle to achieve.
Jackie is a tightly-wound, classy and subtly boundary-pushing film – one highly befitting the lady of its title. Here’s hoping for a few more risk-takers in the stuffy world of the period drama.