Legendary lady

Pablo Larraín on Jackie, Camelot and the uncontrollable.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Pablo Larraín on Natalie Portman's Jackie: "She had an identity crisis. She would try different dresses for him. And he was not there anymore."
Pablo Larraín on Natalie Portman's Jackie: "She had an identity crisis. She would try different dresses for him. And he was not there anymore." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the 50th New York Film Festival, Pablo Larraín presented No, starring Gael García Bernal. For the 54th edition he and Gael García Bernal are back for Neruda with Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda. A Special US première presentation of Jackie, screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, stars Natalie Portman as First Lady Jackie Kennedy. The film shot by the great Stéphane Fontaine (Paul Verhoeven's Elle starring Isabelle Huppert), also features Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy, with Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Max Casella, John Carroll Lynch, Richard E Grant, Beth Grant and Caspar Phillipson as President Kennedy. Produced by Juan de Dios Larraín, Mickey Liddell, Scott Franklin, Ari Handel and Darren Aronofsky, the director of Black Swan.

Natalie Portman as First Lady Jackie Kennedy
Natalie Portman as First Lady Jackie Kennedy

Richard Burton is heard singing as King Arthur in Camelot and the score is by Mica Levi (composer for Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin and Michael Almereyda's Marjorie Prime). At the Peninsula Hotel in New York, I spoke with Pablo Larraín about his Camelot montage, Jackie playing dress up, rage, love, and curiosity, being in and out of control of your image.

"Jack sometimes walked into the desert alone - just to be tempted by the devil. But he always returned to us," says Jackie (Portman), chain-smoking, determined, deeply wounded, to a reporter (Crudup) who visits her in the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, one week after her husband was assassinated. "And I don't smoke," she adds, fully aware that making of the legend had begun mere moments after JFK's death.

The legend, the icon, public and private mourning are what interest Larraín. It is the heels getting stuck in the mud at Arlington National Cemetery that compete with the research on the specifics of Lincoln's funeral. The every-day trifle and the grand gesture collide and produce a gap. This gap holds the essence of Jackie, that's where American history emerges. To the reporter, she says: "I'll be editing this conversation in case I don't exactly say what I mean."

President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) dancing with Jackie
President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) dancing with Jackie

To Bobby Kennedy (Sarsgaard) she insists he instruct the right people to "make him [his brother] look like himself." The perfect abyss, this remains the blind spot the movie circles around - because the world still does. A song from the musical Camelot underscores a brilliant montage of desperate, exhilarated dress-up with vodka, wine and evening gowns - a farewell tour through the White House which if it didn't happen this way, should have.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I would like to ask you about the first Camelot montage, which is fantastic. Where she is getting dressed - playing dress-up and mourning at the same time. It almost reminded me of the skateboard scenes and the waltzes, how you were using that in No. Both of those help very much create something "third". Happy and sad at the same time. Is there some connection?

Pablo Larraín: You see what happens. I am not very related to the Camelot myth. I wasn't. I knew what it was but I was not an expert on it. So once I start digging, to just try to understand it, in order to do it right for the film. And I realized that there were a lot of things that you guys as Americans would assume, because you already know. And I didn't. So I wanted the movie to be very simple and people would understand it. Even if you are not from that generation or even if you are not American. So everybody in the world could understand what Camelot means. What it was about in this movie. It's very explained and I thought it is necessary to do that.

Peter Sarsgaard plays Bobby Kennedy in Jackie
Peter Sarsgaard plays Bobby Kennedy in Jackie Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

So the first thing I did is when I read the script and when she refers and says "Every night, Jack [Kennedy] would play a record. And the last side, the last track was this song." And she would describe this. And I'm like: "Can I listen to that record?" To my team. And they brought it in and we used that song, that track at the very end of the film. But the main theme of the musical is the one that she goes and plays. In his room. That night. Plays the record. Played loud. Walks back to the dressing room and starts drinking and trying different dresses and gathering things around. Basically because, I would say, that she was trying to know who she was at that moment.

She had an identity crisis. She would try different dresses for him. And he was not there anymore. And I believe that that loneliness, it's something so sad and beautiful. And with this music that is so uplifting, playing in the background, it would create a combination of emotions that I thought was necessary. Look, I believe that cinema, particularly this kind of cinema - it's a very specific combination. And those elements are, I think, rage, love, and curiosity.

AKT: There's a moment on the plane, when she [Jackie after the assassination] is cleaning herself and there's a piece of tissue that is hanging off her finger. Somehow, in that piece of tissue, the entire tragedy seemed to be contained, I felt. It represents the pieces of whatever...

Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) with Jackie
Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) with Jackie

PL: It was an accident.

AKT: Yeah. Lucky accident?

PL: Yeah.

AKT: And you saw it and felt, yes?

PL: Yeah, we kept it. We could have erased it or used another take but I thought it was beautiful. Because it's just like cinema. You're trying to control things but finally it's not controllable. And there's a gap in-between that and the idea of control. Especially when it comes to for example things like public image. There's other very cunning, important people that try to control your image or what people think about that. Look at what is going on today in this country!

And then there are elements that don't let you control that. Because there are people even stronger than what you can do. So there's a gap, like a void, like a black space. And that's where we want to be. That's how we try to shape somebody's legacy, opinion, whatever and what really happens in the end.

Jackie US poster at the Peninsula Hotel on Fifth Avenue
Jackie US poster at the Peninsula Hotel on Fifth Avenue Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Did Jackie and Neruda ever meet?

PL: I have dug into it. I have no idea. I can't confirm it. But it's possible. I don't know … They [the two films] are so different. One movie is about a poet in Chile in the late Forties, who was a communist. And the other movie is about someone who was against communists. They were on different sides of the Cold War and different periods, of course. But there are things in common.

I think they were both somehow shaping their own legends. And they did it in very particular circumstances - which is the days of the crisis … I can tell you that after making both movies, I have no idea who these people were.

AKT: That's the best result.

Jackie is Pablo Larraín's first film in English.

Coming up - Natalie Portman on being First Lady Jackie Kennedy and Peter Sarsgaard on playing Bobby Kennedy.

Jackie will open in cinemas in the US on December 2 and the UK on January 20, 2017.

The New York Film Festival closes tonight, October 16 with James Gray's The Lost City of Z.

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