Pablo Larraín (dir), Stéphane Fontaine (cin) , Noah Oppenheim (wri)
Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt (cast)
LD Entertainment, Fox Searchlight Pictures
September 7, 2016 (Venice), December 2, 2016 (USA)
We are midway through Jackie, and Jacqueline Kennedy, standing in all black, is talking to a priest. “Was God in the bullet that killed my husband?” she asks, angry but still pointedly polite. When the priest responds that yes, God is in all things, she spits back: “Is he in me right now?” Her gaze is unwavering.
Jackie, directed by Pablo Larrain and released last autumn, is an unlikely vehicle for an analysis of doubt and faith. Ostensibly a biopic, it subverts its own genre, going between horror art flick and introspective indie release to create a distinctive language through which it explores subjects rarely touched upon by biographies, much less women-driven ones. Despite having the Kennedy assassination as a backdrop for the action, the focus of Jackie is on how grief and loss shape one’s understanding of one’s own place in the world and the weight of carrying a legacy forward. Jackie is not about conspiracy theories or lost loves. It’s about history. And God is at the center of it.
Throughout the film, religion is only mentioned by name in passing. Billy Crudup’s journalist, suspicious of Jackie’s intentions, asks if Catholicism has helped her during her mourning. Jackie, equally skeptic, asks if he’s a priest himself. The discussion of religion ends there, but faith remains a subject of interest and a thread that ties the film together.
Yehezkel Kauffman, Israeli philosopher and biblical scholar, explains in his The Religion of Israel that the great change the biblical God brought was his transcendence of nature. Nature was no longer a fundamental part of the God, but rather a canvas he used to express his will in human history. God is unlimited and ageless, but expresses his wants in concrete ways. Jackie’s relationship with faith happens through that concreteness. God is in the bullet that killed Kennedy, but also in the assassination itself, watching impassive as, in Jackie’s own words, a husband and a father is put to death.
The film’s exploration of God, however, is not limited to the ways in which he presents himself. Unlike Martin Scorsese’s Silence (another 2016 release, lauded for its portrayal of religiosity), which lingers on the image of a crucified Christ to establish its connection to the divine, the god in Jackie is Kauffman’s biblical God, faceless, with no human form. The only way to prove he exists is through the consequences of his actions as they are reflected in history, and Jackie is preoccupied with how exactly and through whose view those actions–and history itself–are seen.
The opening to the film reads like the introduction to a soft edged horror. We are greeted by a pristine white house standing alone in the woods, the colours muted and cold. Only Jackie and the reporter are seen, standing face to face, in a quiet, private way that is more reminiscent of theatre plays than film. “You understand,” says Jackie, standing at the door, blocking the journalist from entering the house, “that I’ll be editing this conversation just in case I don’t say exactly what I mean.” That is the requirement for the interview to happen at all. She only allows him in after he acquiesces. The birds chirping in the background create an eerie soundtrack to the sharpness of this first scene.
There is no question, then, from the very beginning, that the version of history we’ll be seeing will be Jackie’s own. Editorialising is part of the game, one that signifies power. In a later scene, Jackie is looking straight at the journalist when she says, cigarette in hand, smoke curling around her face, “I don’t smoke.” She is uninterested in the truth, laughs at the reporter’s claim to journalistic integrity, his search for facts. Truth is an individual’s ideal, and Jackie is ultimately concerned with the communal.
From her choice to allow her children to be photographed, to choosing to stay in her blood stained suit so everyone can take a good look at “what they’ve done,” Jackie’s focus is on a shared experience of history, one that is subjective and open to interpretation. Whose interpretation prevails is the ultimate source of power, and the film struggles between accepting, as the priest says, God’s interest in the truth, and yielding the power of stories. It’s a struggle between God’s place in history and the human need to reshape events.
In Jackie, contact with the divine is not a source of pure devotional love, or comfort, but rather of struggle with the divine itself. When Jackie remarks upon God’s cruelty she is echoing Job’s laments, asking what she has done to deserve such a fate, but her insistence on regulating the way her fate is told is an echo of Jacob’s struggle with the angel in the desert, a refusal to give in, persistent in its need to establish its own version of events. If the great change brought by Kauffman’s god was his constant presence in human history, then what Jackie brings of new is its protagonists conviction that her version of history is the one that should prevail.
The way Jackie chooses to impose her view is through not only the pure manipulation of stories, but also by the careful manipulation of material things. The priests in Silence hold on to rosaries and crucifixes with an individual’s devotion, their concern being how their actions are going to change their own view of god and of themselves and how each step taken changes their idea of morality and of religion. In Jackie, Lincoln’s room is a carefully constructed place of worship, an oratorium that serves as a reminder of how great people have acted in the past, and how history connects the Kennedys to them. And how, in turn, regular people are connected to the Kennedy legacy.
Kennedy’s appreciation of the Camelot soundtrack is a good example of how material things can take on a symbolic weight. The idea of Camelot becomes an idea of tradition. Kennedy is not a man, and Jackie herself is not a woman, their individual desires are background to greater things, and in the end, ultimately unimportant. They’re symbols pointing the way to something greater than themselves, parts of a greater whole connected to and shaping the present but also heavily influenced by actions of the past.
Jackie remarks that for tradition to happen one needs to have time, and the film catalogues her struggling against time, trying to establish her family’s legacy as something solid in a short period and without a lot of resources to go with. In one scene, Bob Kennedy, angry and grief stricken, laments the fact that his brother’s administration didn’t accomplish enough. Jackie’s job is to double the impact of something–and someone–that more objectively perhaps had half the momentum it claims to have.
The score, composed by Mica Levi, gives this rush against time the tension it needs to be effective. There is a sense, all throughout the film, that something terrible is about to happen, a note of promise that is incredibly reminiscent of horror film techniques. The release of that tension ultimately never happens, and we end up feeling trapped, claustrophobic among all the things and stories contained in Jackie’s world.
“Right now you are blind,” says the priest to Jackie, after telling her a parable from the gospel of John, about Jesus healing a blind man. “Not because you have sinned, but because you have been chosen. So that the works of God can be revealed in you.” Jackie overcomes her adversity not by accepting it and hoping for deliverance, but rather by reshaping history so that the works of God, unstoppable and world-changing, are recounted under her own terms.