Performance, Perspective and Control in Jackie (2016)

I’ve recently had an abstract accepted for the rather exciting conference, Revisiting the Gaze: Feminism, Fashion and the Female Body. My friend Jacki Willson (author of The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque and Being Gorgeous: Feminism, Sexuality and the Pleasures of the Visual) told me about it and suggested it would probably be of interest to me.

My writing tends to be historical in focus (not surprising really, I’m part of the Cinema and Television History Research centre at DMU). I’m repeatedly drawn to American cinema and its (often deeply problematic) representation of women and to how these representations may speak to and about audiences and culture, both at the time of their production and thereafter.

Occasionally though, modern phenomena does often spark something in my imagination. In fact, it is often apparently modern phenomena that catch my eye, leading me to think of historical precedents.

I’ve always been interested in the notion of the gaze. Again, this isn’t really a shock. My work is commonly preoccupied with gender and identity. I’ve not only taught film studies but also broader media studies and for a year prior to joining DMU I taught photographic theory. The idea of perspectives and of performativity is something I suspect I will never tire of exploring.

And so I’ve decided to write my paper on Pablo Larraín’s 2015 biopic, Jackie. The film itself is a deeply unsettling and extremely subjective account of Jackie Kennedy’s experience of the days following the assassination of her husband, John F Kennedy, 35th President of the United States of America.

This was a film narrative shaped deeply by performance. Firstly the performance of the films lead, Natalie Portman is key, not just because she is our protagonist but because of the way in which she embodied Kennedy. Portman was tipped to win an Oscar for her very distinctive performance. As Mark Kermode observed for the Guardian:

With her breathy vowels and strangely stagey expressions, I confess that Portman’s mannered performance seemed at first too arch to be engaging.[1]

This ‘mannered’ physical and psychological depiction of this iconic popular figure was fascinating to me.  It engaged me precisely because of its overtly self-conscious performance mode, combined with the film’s score, whose sudden drops in pitch evoke the continual, disorientating waves of nausea I remember so well from my own experience of grief. In many ways for me, the visceral, haptic response I experienced whilst watching this film were more akin to that of a horror film than the anticipated weepie I had suspected I might get when I bought my cinema ticket.

Here though, we not only witness a performance by Portman, but we also witness a performance by Kennedy. The film’s central concern is with Kennedy’s attempts to control her media perception and this is evidenced repeatedly in a fractious interview with a journalist which becomes one of the key framing devices for the narrative. In these fraught exchanges she makes clear that even as any public power she possessed  diminishes, she is intent to utilise any remaining influence she has to deliver and disseminate a convincing public performance, with a view to crafting a very specific legacy in the form of a glamorous myth of ‘Camelot’ around herself, her husband and his political administration.

As is probably already apparent, the film is melodramatic in both subject and tone. I am a keen fan of the melodramatic mode because of the unique, personal perspective it can offer.  Jackie very much fits this mould.

As a film it is complex, deliberately disorienting, disjointed and extremely subjective, as is the experience of grief. This disorientating and intensely personal effect is achieved through the interweaving of the contemporary, (through the interview with the journalist), with the recent past (as represented through the performance of intimate, routine and mundane actions undertaken in the domestic sphere of the White House) along with scenes from Kennedy’s more distant past with her husband (such as recitals and glamorous balls, an evocation of the ‘Camelot’ myth). This already fragmented plot is interrupted repeatedly by a more overtly mediated gaze, in the form of the 1962 TV special A Tour of the White House with Mrs John F Kennedy. This TV special showcased the restorations Mrs Kennedy oversaw in the White House and carefully positioned her not as a model First Lady, the archetypal home maker, possessor of excellent taste and protector of American cultural and historical identity. Here the original black-and-white archive material from the TV special is seamlessly intertwined with restaged footage, and Portman’s attention to detail in terms of mastering Kennedy’s idiom and delivering a convincing performance[ii] that is virtually identical to the original footage, combines to create an extremely convincing facsimile and a believable document whose ostensible authenticity raises issues around veracity and perspective, nostalgia and ultimately, control as in shifting between these various modes, realisms and occurrences, the film seeks to balance emotional realism, subjective experience, and received representations of the past, with historical accuracy.

From my perspective, it was a fascinating watch and I can’t wait to get stuck into unpacking it further.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jan/22/jackie-review-natalie-portman-pablo-lerrain-mica-levi [accessed 03/04/2017)

[ii] Portman discusses her technique and commitment to the role. Detailing her experience of watching the programme repeatedly in order to master the voice in an interview for entertainment news show Access Hollywood: ‘I really watched and listened to the tapes of the original White House tour over and over and over again and really tried to even figure out where she stumbled on words, or where she took a breath.’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzZjUsXrRwQ [accessed 03/04/2017]

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