Sometimes there are faces that are so incredible in close-ups and extreme close-ups that they are almost painful to witness. Cinema makes these visages become works of art, portraits encased in celluloid (or digital, depending on the director) museums where history is captured and stored at the rate of 24 frames per second. These are faces that transcend any theoretical limitations of the camera, the perceptions of the audience, maybe even the story being told – the character evolves into a new and different beast, in the most positive sense. When an actor displays this level of ability to breathe life and meaning into a role, far beyond whatever was suggested on the pages of the script, you will know without hesitation that you have encountered a transformative creation that is both magnificently constructed for the movie theater experience and is also, in a strange way, even more affecting, thought-provoking and real than reality.
Natalie Portman’s depiction of Jackie Kennedy in the new Pablo Larraín film Jackie is one example of this phenomenon. Close-ups and extreme close-ups allow nowhere for the actor, or the audience, to hide. Portman has to be able to project every ounce of Jackie’s grief, fear, self-loathing and stubborn vanity when her face fills the frame, and moviegoers have to confront those images over and over. Larraín’s film achieves the unbelievable feat of simultaneously getting under the skin of a complex woman, digging into her soul during the most heartbreaking and traumatic week of her life, and also staying at a distance, allowing the character to shape the recollection of events being told to a reporter (Billy Crudup) a week after JFK’s assassination. Jackie reminds me of the documentary 20,000 Days on Earth (2014), the scripted documentary in which Nick Cave recounts five decades’ worth of memories and shows us the controlled version of his life that he wants us to see – sleeping, eating, typing lyrics in a house which isn’t his actual house; reciting monologues that explain his innermost emotions via voiceovers recorded in post-production. Objectivity does not exist when people decide how their truths are told and how facts are remembered.
At one point in the film, Portman’s Jackie murmurs, “I lost track somewhere. What was real? What was performance?” Who but Jackie Kennedy herself can say whether Natalie Portman’s performance is psychologically accurate? Perhaps Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim provide no concrete answers, either for Jackie (the character or the real person), for Portman as an actress or for us as the onlookers. The only certainty I have that Portman succeeded in her portrayal is a gut feeling, the awareness when the end credits began to roll that she had accomplished something that will continue to resonate with me, long after this Oscar season ends.