In Pablo Larraín’s Jackie (2016), Natalie Portman delivers one of the more nuanced, divisive, and risky screen performances of the cinematic year. On paper, Jackie seems like a conventional and appealing biopic, with the potential to show us a fantastic actress doing brilliant work. It focuses on the immediate moments and days after President Kennedy’s assassination – a seemingly fertile landscape of grief, drama, and tragedy - the stuff of a biopic’s dreams.
However, while it indeed operates around a highly emotional axis, and Portman does deliver a captivating and mesmeric performance, Jackie steps away from conventions of the biopic at many turns. It avoids traditional redemptive arcs, and isn’t concerned with positioning its protagonist in a balanced world where other characters are afforded equal exposition or interiority. It is thorny and inventive, bracing and discordant. Noah Oppenheim’s incisive screenplay (which privileges Jackie Kennedy’s experiences over others); Sebastian Sepulveda’s splintered editing; and Larraín’s committed and ephemeral direction, support Portman’s complex and beguiling central performance. These factors combine to offer a fractured and effective glance into the fragmentary process of grief. In this role, and particularly with Stéphane Fontaine’s elegant and invasive cinematography, Portman relishes her performative power, specifically the emotional potential existent within the tension between restraint and excess.
There are two key elements of Portman’s performance that signal a distinct approach to her screen acting, one which challenges the view that contemporary approaches to cinema, and subsequently screen performance, often function as “strategies to conceal the fundamental "staginess" of acting.” (Naremore, 1988, p38). Firstly, Larraín’s focus on the face, and Portman’s exaggerated expressivity, suggest an approach that creates a fractured and un-naturalist (or perhaps ultra-realistic?) sequence of grief and self-description; and secondly, Portman’s adherence to Mrs Kennedy’s vocal patterns, cadences, and inflections come together to challenge our more current and prevalent conditioning towards, and perhaps expectations for, naturalist performance styles. What is so fascinating and effective about these elements is that, as James Naremore would say, they allow “the audience to become postmodernists, alienating the spectacle, producing a heightened awareness of the artificiality in all acting.” (Naremore, p31). This seems especially apt for a film that distances itself from exploring “who people really were”, and rather focuses on “the myths we construct around them” (Betancourt, 2016), particularly as it follows a protagonist so cloaked in myth and aestheticised artifice.
These elements manifest themselves throughout the film, but I want to focus on one key sequence. We see Kennedy being interviewed by a journalist post-assassination, which itself forms an effective framing device for the narrative sequencing and exposition. In Portman’s scenes within this exchange she is framed as an exclusive figure. The camera focuses tightly on her face, and as she speaks we see the intense emotion fighting through a barrier Portman (as Kennedy) has established. Her eyes dart, and her brows shift with precise and panicked force.
By focusing so tightly on the face, and leaving such little distance between the lens and performer, and the performance and audience, one could expect Portman’s performance to take place on a subtle register. However Portman is pitched higher, or indeed on a different scale altogether. Portman specifically captures the breathy voice and careful diction of Kennedy, which she fuses with a palpable emotionality. As Manuel Betancourt observes “Portman’s first lady is both histrionic and restrained, melodramatic and detached.” (Betancourt, 2017) Betancourt further goes on to note that while
[t]he emotional excess she so excels at is often put down as aesthetically and stylistically inferior to male reticence and restraint….. with Jackie you can see her straddling the two, bringing to bear what it is that’s made her such a magnetic screen presence. (Betancourt, 2017)
It seems to me that this idea of restraint and excess, alongside Larraín’s fragmentary direction, and Fonatine’s tight framing, is key to the success and boldness of Portman’s performance. Agreeing with Naremore’s assessment that “[t]he typical realist dramatic film affords few opportunities for such virtuoso imitation.” (Naremore, p29), it seems fair to say that within Jackie’s departure from conventional biopic trends (often rooted in imitation and mimicry), and the isolated focus on Portman’s face (and exaggerated expressions within this moment), we witness a break from formal realism and a focus on moments of presentational performance. Naremore argues that the barrier of the screen in film performance creates “a fetishistic dynamic in the spectator [whereby] the actor is manifestly there in the image, but not there in the room, "present" in a more intimate way.” (Naremore, p29) This seems relevant to Portman’s approach in the sense that the camera’s complete attachment to her face, her heightened expressivity, and commitment to Mrs Kennedy’s vocal articulation, offers the audience a profound, almost voyeuristic glance into the interiority of grief Mrs Kennedy felt.
Referencing the emotionality of Portman, Betancourt astutely goes on to say that
there’s nothing quite like seeing Portman cry on screen. Her face is perhaps most beguiling when it contorts itself into anguish. While many of her peers do more with less, the actress is at her most enthralling when she does more with more. Portman’s emotions are often outsized, exceeding the frame that wishes to contain them. (Betancourt, 2017)
This assessment seems particularly relevant when discussing this tightly framed and emotionally expressive sequence, and furthermore, it draws to mind something Naremore said in an interview, with Jonathan Rosenbaum on screen performance, whereby some “performances were designed to make the audience feel in some degree attracted to the characters, and maybe uncomfortable about the attraction.” (Naremore, 2014) This typifies a central point I want to make about Portman’s performance and its framing: the power and (fetishistic) pleasure to be had in the close lensing of Portman’s internal (and highly externalized) emotionality offers the audience a unique view towards the conflict between restraint and excess in screen performance, and indeed that of Mrs Kennedy herself. Portman is reconfiguring something - in embracing such a direct performative address, a powerful and immersive moment occurs.
Furthermore, bearing in mind that screen performance can be a “blend of public speaking and everyday behavior – more formalized, intense, and “sincere” than ordinary conversation but projected less strongly than a talk from a podium” (Naremore, p35), it is interesting to consider to what end Portman challenges this is in her willingness to risk distraction. If it is true that a “close-up address also requires [a performer] to adopt a fairly rigid posture” and to avoid “any quick movement [which] threatens to disrupt the "front" for the performance”, and whereby “even a minute shift of the body could decenter the careful framing”, leading one to “witness a sudden transformation of naturalized communication into artifice.” (Naremore, p35), this appears to be a concern that fails to trouble Portman or Larraín. Likewise, Betancourt’s observation that Portman is “always on the verge of tears” yet remains “self-aware of how her tear-streaked face will affect those around her”, suggests a type of knowing and measured performativity which although often derided as “laughable, ridiculous even” (Betancourt, 2017), in this instance enables Portman to pull back the curtain on conventional standards of performance, and offer something refreshing, sharp and impressive. This performance isn’t reduced to a conversation around mimicry and artifice, but rather leads one, in its most basic and effective sense, to consider the possibilities of viewing, challenging and receiving different modes of screen performance. In another sequence, where Portman re-enacts Kennedy’s famously televised White House tour, Larraín and Portman synthesise artifice and reality. Portman uncannily occupies Kennedy’s physical and historical landscape. Portman’s attention to vocal similarity, and the minutiae of gesture, posture, and movement again risk (or indeed embrace) such a performative distraction. In actively drawing attention to the interstice between the real and the performed - a concept Kennedy herself exploited – Portman, whilst never shying away from highly specific and stylized performativity, nods to the power and problematized ideas of mimicry, presentation, and artifice within screen acting.
What’s more, in order to further unpick the rarity of Portman’s performance, it is useful to reflect on Naremore’s idea that
where ordinary film acting is concerned, the point to be remembered is that even though modern society has brought performers close to us, in many ways it has made them seem farther away, more fabulous than ever (Naremore, p33).
While I think this is largely true, this specific performance seems to typify this potentiality. Portman actively distances herself from “ordinary” film acting, and further dislocates conventional form to allow new cracks of spectatorship and performance to emerge. At the same time, Portman distances herself from the audience, both by embracing and re-framing her own glamour and star persona with that of Mrs Kennedy’s, and via her heightened expressivity - a tricky balancing act.
While screen acting can “seem more or less presentational, depending on the emotional tone of the players, their movements in relation to the camera, and the degree to which they mimic well-known forms of behaviour” (Naremore, p36), and even though it seems true that screen actors “usually pretend that the audience is not present” (Naremore, p36), I would argue that with her work in Jackie, Portman excels at exploiting and challenging these commonly held principles. While it may seem to some that formally Portman does just this (mimicry), perhaps intellectually she is doing something bolder? In experimenting with the audience’s reception of exaggerated and controlled emotionality, and through a careful balance of restraint and excess, and heightened gestural, vocal, and emotional performativity (aided by Fontaine’s tight framing, Larraín’s direction, and Sepulveda’s splintered editing). Portman is able to partly deconstruct the prevalence for naturalism in contemporary screen acting, thus allowing Jackie to deliver one of the most complex, exciting, and risky experiments in screen performance this year.
NAREMORE, J., 1988. Acting in the Cinema (1). Berkeley, US: University of California Press.
NAREMORE, J. and ROSENBAUM, J., 2014. Questions About Film Acting: A Dialogue. The Cine-Files, 6(Spring).
BETANCOURT, M., 2016. How a Chilean Director Crafted the Jackie O. Biopic Likely to Get Natalie Portman an Oscar Nod. Remzelda The New Latin Wave. Available online at: http://remezcla.com/features/film/jackie-pablo-larrain-los-cabos-film-festival-2016/
BETANCOURT, M., 2017. The Serious Camp of Natalie Portman. Vague Visages. Available at: https://vaguevisages.com/2017/01/26/the-serious-camp-of-natalie-portman/
All images from IMDb.
Words by Daniel Massie