Is there a woman in popular culture more known and less knowable than Jacqueline Kennedy? She’s the ultimate cipher icon — the almost realized dream of American royalty, a beautiful enigma frozen in pink bouclé. It’s hard to say whether Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s dazzlingly baroque portrait actually illuminates the mystery or merely cements the myth; his take is both wildly stylized and feverishly intimate, a surreal collision of private and public selves played out simultaneously in the exclusive back rooms of power and on the world’s biggest stage.
No amount of bravura filmmaking matters, of course, without a Jackie we can believe in. And Natalie Portman’s First Lady is a revelation, not only technically precise — she nails the fluttery-bird gestures and breathy mid-Atlantic accent, and possibly outpaces the original in cheekbones — but remarkable in its psychological layers. (It’s also a brilliant reproach to every biopic that believed putting a pretty brunette in a pillbox hat was enough.) Larraín keeps his canvas small: Nearly all of the movie is confined to the day of JFK’s death and its immediate aftermath, framed by Jackie’s first post-assassination interview with an unnamed reporter (Billy Crudup). She guesses, accurately, that their meeting may be her best and only chance to shape her late husband’s still-tenuous legacy, and so we stand by, along with Crudup, as she essentially invents the fantasy of Camelot.
In his presence — and with just about every other man who dares to challenge her, including her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) — she’s nothing less than formidable, an iron fist in a little white glove. Alone, though, she allows herself to fall apart, wandering the presidential bedroom suite in a pilled-out haze of grief and chiffon. Shot in often claustrophobic close-ups with a dizzying, discordant score, Jackie veers close to treating camp as high art. But in its audacious strangeness, the movie manages to do something history hardly ever gets to: surprise us. A–