Pop Culture Advent Calendar, Day 15: 'Jackie' Blasts 'Camelot,' Wanders The West Wing
Once a day, until Dec. 25, we'll be highlighting a specific small, good thing that happened in popular culture this year. And we do mean small: a moment or image from a film or TV show, a panel from a comic, a brief exchange from a podcast, or a passage from a book.
Director Pablo Larrain's deeply private portrait of a very public grief might seem an odd choice for this calendar. The film, like its subject, roils with emotions beneath its carefully composed, seemingly glacial, surface. It's by turns somber and angry, wounded and defiant. It is also, like its subject, never anything less than elegantly, effortlessly stylish.
You'll read a lot about how he frames his actors: Often, they face the camera in tight close-up, staring us down, challenging us. Other times — as in scenes between Natalie Portman's Jackie and John Hurt's priest — they lean in close, whisper-fighting like lovers.
And when he wants to demonstrate how cold and isolated Jackie's existence abruptly becomes in the hours and days following JFK's assassination, he'll place her small in the frame against the cavernous rooms and hallways of the White House. These spaces, loaded with exquisitely wrought antiques and precious objects — objects about which she was passionate, and most of which she had a hand in placing there — somehow manage to seem empty, stark and unnervingly still: think The West Wing as shot by Stanley Kubrick.
What will generate the most talk, of course, is Portman's performance, which risks something, nudging as it does right up to the precipice of parody before receding to find something smaller and truer.
But for the film to work, both actor and director have to push past aesthetics, past stylistic grace notes, or else it will all feel like an elegantly composed shop window: something exquisitely wrought, even beautiful ... that we can only regard passively, from behind glass.
When, midway through the film, Jackie, alone in her bedroom, starts to chain-smoke, and pours herself another vodka, it seems like more of what we've witnessed up to that moment: a study in grief. But then she walks over to Jack's bedroom, moves to his record player, and lowers the needle on a waiting record. The opening bars of Lerner and Leowe's "Camelot" begin. She cranks the volume, and wanders off.
For the next few minutes, we watch as she drinks, and smokes, and pops pills, and tries on a series of her beautiful dresses and gloves and hats. She moves through the rooms of the East Wing — the First Family's residence — like a ghost, and slips down to the West Wing, and the Oval Office. She sits at the Presidential Desk. She drinks some more, and smokes some more, and swallows more pills and tries on more dresses. All the while, we hear Richard Burton talk-singing the musical's lyrics about magical, perfect kingdoms — the go-to, over-familiar cliche of the Kennedy Era — and it all risks coming off merely kitschy, even outright campy, but it's not.
It's human, and raw, and real.
Because that's the moment we realize something along with her: she is a ghost, haunting this place that was her home mere hours ago. Everything about the life she knew — the life that she loved with such passion — has already slipped beyond her reach forever.
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