Movie Review — JACKIE: The Power of Cheap Music
Working within several time frames, Pablo Larrain’s new film, Jackie, starring Nathalie Portman in the title role, recounts the way Jacqueline Kennedy dealt with the terrible days right after the assassination of President Kennedy, and also how in retrospect she came to think about her role and that historical moment. The film adopts a low key, talking-head rhetoric about the woman, her trials and tribulations, and the ordeal the United States went through. But it ends with the (inordinately) triumphant strains of the final song from the Broadway musical Camelot, as Richard Burton sings, “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment/ That was known as Camelot.” What are we to make of this ecstatic explosion of kitsch as the culmination of an essentially quiet film about one of the most wrenching episodes in modern American history?
As a closing note, the Lerner and Lowe song is tantalizingly tied in with the decision to tell the story of the Kennedy assassination through the eyes of Jacqueline Kennedy, who brought culture, tradition, and historical consciousness to the White House as no First Lady before her had ever done. Jackie. Not Robert Kennedy. Not Lyndon Johnson. Not someone from the Dallas sheriff’s office. There is a clear feeling that Jackie’s was the right point of view, that the story called for a person who is anchored in a desire for beauty, not a politician or an officer of the law. Yet her appropriateness seems to hinge even more on the way her genuine taste as the woman who invited the likes of Casals to play in the East Room, and her genuine interest in American history and decorum exists in tension with her bemusement and embarrassment that although every other word that came from President Kennedy’s mouth, as she says, was a quotation from ancient Greek and Roman culture, his favorite record is the music from Camelot. She is embarrassed that in this moment she too succumbs; it is the score of Camelot, simultaneously a Disneyfication of English history and a sterilization of American idealism, that keeps running through her head during the greatest ordeal of her life.
There is an air of psychological possession by cheap music that suffuses Larrain’s deceptively simple, piercingly perceptive film. And not only by cheap music, but also by cheap romanticism, cheap spectacular gestures, and cheap religiosity. Jackie is authentically compelled by the need for ceremony to commemorate John Kennedy’s passing, and she studies documents and pictures from President Lincoln’s funeral toward that end. Yet at the same time, we feel an uncanny contradiction between her respect for the nitty gritty of tradition and history and her absurd entanglement with Lerner and Lowe’s petit-bourgeois musical fantasy about King Arthur.
Jackie’s relationship to both art and mass culture colors the themes about public and private that are the central subject of this film. Larrain fuses Jackie’s running censorship of what she tells the nameless reporter (Billy Crudup) who comes to interview her for a book about the assassination as she speaks with him in present time; with her choreography of the funeral for public consumption and her departure from the White House, which appears in her flashback memories; and with Larrain’s recreation of the black and white video of the televised tour of the White House that she conducted. The assassination gives Larrain, a Chilean director who has previously dealt almost exclusively with the horrors of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in his home country, pealing away the layers of what political repression meant in the lives of ordinary Chileans, the opportunity for a completely different unmasking. In Jackie, he plumbs the American soul standing before the great mystery of life and death, and what he exposes to us is the pathos of a rootless, privileged, fierce but fragile nation, seen from an outsider’s perspective as a culture prone to retreating into fantasy under the pressure of cosmic, inescapable realities.
Portman’s Jackie is all large, fearful, wounded brown eyes and a skinny, magnificently bedecked skeletal frame, who continually obscures the raw details of her painful, lonely, exposed life with a cosmetically enhanced version of reality for public consumption the way she drapes her body in high fashion. She feeds the nameless journalist a meal of unvarnished facts of the horror of the fatal car ride in Dallas and then forbids him to serve them to the public, sometimes dictating to him word for word the sanitized version she wants to see in print. She is confronted by Robert Kennedy’s agonized sense of the failure of his brother’s administration to achieve anything near its potential, and she nevertheless speaks of Kennedy’s tenure as an idealized Camelot that the United States will never see the like of again. She tells her nameless priest (John Hurt) the truth about her loveless marriage to John Kennedy, with whom she says she rarely spent a night while he was President, not even the night before his death in Dallas, and at the same time recites for those ecclesiastical ears a romantic fable of her undying devotion to her husband. She clearly has an intimacy with Robert Kennedy (Peter Skarsgaard) on whom she leans like a lover, a brother, a father, a friend in the days after President Kennedy’s death; but this abandoned wife has memories she cherishes of acting out in public a romantic idyll with her handsome, lively husband, which we see in flashback, as Robert Kennedy watches from the sidelines with an enigmatic expression on his face. In fact, the final scene over which the climactic Camelot song thunders takes place at a party while Jackie and John Kennedy are dancing, a living photo op of dazzling charismatic allure, flirtation, and courtship that is an ersatz representation of love in exactly the same way that Camelot is an ersatz representation of politics and history.
The film’s predominant soundtrack suggests an omniscient point of view separate from Jackie’s. For most of the film, it is scored with modern atonal music, painfully seething with sound that resembles minor chords. The opening scenes are the most harrowing, scored as they are by music that seems to be contorting under the pressure of pain, as if we were hearing a phonograph playing a vinyl recording in a burning house. The music literally melts. Larrain shows us the bleeding wounds of the assassination as the film begins, and then slowly allows us to see Jackie bandaging them with layers of fantasy. There are her compulsive arrangements for a procession with a riderless horse in which she is determined to march instead of staying in the shelter of a limousine, exposing herself to the danger of whatever violence killed her husband. There is the high drama of her arrangement for President Kennedy to have a presidentially “suitable” gravesite in Arlington cemetery, not the private familial grave in Massachusetts that Rose Kennedy wants, to which Jackie adds the disinterred bodies of her two babies who died soon after birth. There is her astonishing orgy of trying on the gowns that she wore as First Lady, and as she relives the glory, careening around the empty halls of the family quarters in the White House that are closed to the public. The music turns away from its initial sorrow and suffering only at the film’s closure.
Ultimately, Jackie’s cliched fantasies overtake her finer impulses and mask her pain, seemingly subjugating the film with their cheap music, but reality leaves unforgettable traces. History tells us that King Arthur’s actual reign was never about happy-ever-aftering. Neither is the United States. The history of deaths of presidents in office that are mentioned by Jackie; Robert Kennedy’s bitter disappointment; the number of lonely, frustrated, angry lives that pass before us all make that clear. If a girl–and a nation—can lose themselves in false mythologizing about a troubled democracy, should we be concerned? That is the burning question at the heart of Jackie. Is Trump the answer?
NOTE: The title of this review refers to a line from Noel Coward’s play Private Lives: “Strange how potent cheap music is.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jackie received AWFJ’s Movie of the Week endorsement for the week of December 2, 2016.