NEW YORK - The Chilean director Pablo Larrain, whose movie “No” was a candidate for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012, never imagined he would find himself directing a star-studded biographical drama about Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of President John F. Kennedy and an American icon in her own right who had already inspired innumerable movies and television series. Larrain, most of whose previous movies had dealt with aspects of Chile’s history, had never before directed an English-language film. His works, including “Neruda,” a highly stylized biography of the Chilean poet and Nobel Prize laureate Pablo Neruda that is set for a March release in Israeli theaters, had focused on male characters. Nevertheless, around two years ago he received a surprising offer from the American director Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream,” “Black Swan”), who met him at the Berlin International Film Festival and asked if he’d be willing to read a screenplay that follows Jackie Kennedy in the dramatic week between the assassination of her husband and his state funeral.
After recovering from the initial shock, Larrain decided to set out on an adventure – on the condition that Aronofsky, who agreed to produce the film, got Portman to star in it. So why did Larrain agree to direct a movie about a historical figure who had already been widely covered in the American media and in popular culture? As he put it, “Jackie’s story had all the elements that you need for a movie: rage, curiosity and love.”
The result proves that he was right. “Jackie,” which has been nominated for three Oscars and premieres in Israeli theaters on February 16, has received enthusiastic reviews thanks to the original and thoughtful interpretation that Larrain gave to the emotional crisis experienced by its subject after her husband’s assassination on November 22, 1963. Unlike more conventional biographies, including “The Kennedys,” a miniseries starring Katie Holmes as the famous widow, “Jackie” is a fragmented, deceptive portrait of grief and acceptance.
Larrain isn’t interested in the circumstances that led a young New Yorker with a talent for writing and foreign languages named Jacqueline Lee Bouvier to marry an ambitious politician in 1953 and to become an integral part of America’s royal family. From his perspective, Jacqueline Kennedy is a woman who found herself, almost overnight, in a position of power and sought to exploit her influence in order to cement her husband’s legacy. For that reason, many scenes in the movie deal with her struggle to organize a grand funeral with a presidential casket and hundreds of world leaders. Other scenes focus on Jackie’s insistence on comparing JFK with other presidents who were assassinated while in office, in particular with Abraham Lincoln. While being chauffeured she asks the driver if he knows who James Garfield was, and when he admits that he doesn’t she explains that Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, is a sad example of the short memory of Americans: He was assassinated while in office in 1881, but soon disappeared from public awareness. Has the driver heard about Lincoln, she asks, and he answers impatiently that of course he has, “he freed the slaves.” The message is clear: Even more than the traumatic murder itself, the new widow’s soul is tortured by the possibility that her husband’s brief and tumultuous presidency will be lost in the depths of history.
Even though Jackie Kennedy appears in every scene of the movie that bears her name, in a recent interview in New York, Larrain insists that “Jackie” is not a biopic.
“I hate biopics,” Larrain confesses, smiling. “They are boring, dangerous and to some degree impossible. It is impossible to capture someone’s life, with all its complexity and details. You cannot squeeze a person’s entire life into a movie. ‘Jackie’ is not a movie claiming to show you who Jackie Kennedy really was. It is about a specific moment in her life. That’s why it is so wonderful – because it’s an illusion, and it works. You have someone as famous as Natalie [Portman] playing someone as famous as Jackie. This is obviously something that was created and articulated, but once you’re sitting in the cinema you believe this illusion.”
Your works, and especially “No,” “Jackie” and “Neruda,” focus on the gaps and contradictions between history, memory and legacy. Do you find these three categories to be contradictory? Is cinema the best medium to map the gaps and differences between them?
“I’m not sure cinema can answer the question regarding the difference between personal memory and collective history, but it can create desire – which is often enough. Desire on every level: to know about this person, to live those lives, to explore various modes of feeling, memories and fantasies. There is always a gap between the intentions and the result: People will do everything in their power to control and shape their public image. For example, Jackie was shaping and protecting JFK’s legacy by coming up with the myth of Camelot. But then she became an icon herself, and the press portrayed her as a mannequin. She was constantly harassed by photographers. So there is an unbridgeable gap between her intentions and the end result, and that’s where we get in; that’s the back door from which cinema and fiction can enter. The public record is fully accessible for anyone to look at, but I wanted to show what happened behind closed doors during these tragic nights. We don’t know what went through her head, and we’re not interested in making a documentary. However, we can create a fictional account of these events, and it is always based on the truth of human behavior and feelings.”
In order to recreate the dramatic days that followed the assassination, the screenplay of the journalist and producer Noah Oppenheim jumps between a number of locations and events before and after the murder: charged meetings between JFK, the White House staff and his brother, Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard); brief moments with his young children, Caroline and John Jr.; an interview with a reporter during which Jackie occasionally blurts out that her remarks must remain off the record; meetings with a priest and the funeral scene.
When asked why he chose to reenact these events rather than using archival materials and combining documentary and feature-film techniques, Larrain says: “Most of these accounts were focused on JFK, or presented the story from a general perspective of a newsreel. But this film was all about her. And the only way we could really look through her eyes is to recreate them on screen.”
Why did you feel a pressing need to make yet another work on a woman who became a cultural icon?
“Jackie’s story has never been told like this. When you read the report of the Warren Commission, every detail of the assassination is fully explained: how many bullets were shot, where did Jackie sit, how did the guards react. When I first read the line, ‘the President’s wife, the 34-year-old Jackie Kennedy, was sitting next to him,’ I told myself, ‘what if we change that last line and will write instead, JFK was sitting next to her’ – and we will tell this entire story from her point of view. That gives us an opportunity to tell a story about a smart, educated woman who had an incredible political understanding and historical sensitivity. After her husband died in her arms she realizes there isn’t much time left to shape his legacy for future generations.”
Even though Larrain, 40, speaks about Kennedy with a surprising combination of excitement and empathy, he admits that the idea of directing a movie about an American icon never crossed his mind before his auspicious encounter with Aronofsky. In fact, Aronofsky acquired the rights to the screenplay soon after his movie “Black Swan” became a success. He meant to direct it himself with the actress Rachel Weisz, his wife at the time, in the title role. That plan tanked when they broke up and Aronofsky eventually decided to turn the directing reins over to Larrain while staying on as producer.
Growing up in Chile, Larrain says, “I had a very superficial knowledge of Jackie Kennedy. I thought she was someone who was mostly interested in fashion, and she had lived a tragic life full with loss. I knew that she and JFK had lost two children [a stillborn daughter, born in 1956, whom Jackie later referred to as Arabella, and Patrick, who was born in 1963 and lived for just two days] and that their son John died at the age of 38 in a plane crash. I did not know much about the Kennedys, but when I started digging into their story I quickly learned how sophisticated and smart Jackie was, and I fell in love with her and was fascinated by her story. I wanted to dance with her on screen.”
Both “Jackie” and “Neruda” put you in a prominent place on the award circuit this season, and Portman was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar. Are you interested in leaving Chile for Hollywood?
“No, I’m not planning to move to Hollywood. I’m interested in making the kind of movies that will make me feel good – films full with compassion and curiosity. It doesn’t matter in what language. I want to make movies that I can control, and that’s a limitation in Hollywood. And I want to make movies that are private and personal. But the general idea is to make art as long as I can.”
You lived under Pinochet for many years and have made political films such as “No” and “Post Mortem.” Considering the fact we are sitting across the street from the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, do you have any advice for the American left, or for anti-Trump protesters?
“[Fidel] Castro died on November 25, and I remember telling myself, ‘the 20th century is finally over.’ But then I see what’s going on in the U.S. and France and other countries in the world and I’m afraid that we are repeating the same mistakes. We don’t need to go through two world wars again to learn the very same lessons. Xenophobia and hate and all that have been haunting us for over a hundred years, so why should we go through all of that once again?”