Director: Pablo Larraín
By Roderick Heath
The biopic has become the most reliably rancid of contemporary prestige film genres. It’s supposed to be a mode for exploring vital cultural and historical touchstones in stirring, dramatic, thought-provoking fashion, and nothing should be as rich and strange as the life of a great man or woman explored in all its implications. But the biopic has instead become excruciatingly formulaic and facetious even as it reliably captures awards for actors. Pablo Larraín, one of the most interesting talents to emerge on the world film scene in the past decade, has turned his hand to not one but two biopics this year, with the implicit promise to shock the form back to life. He comes mighty close with a diptych of smart, epic, often electrifying filmmaking. Larraín’s cinema has thus far been strongly rooted in his native Chile’s tumultuous modern political and cultural history, explored through films like Tony Manero (2008) and No (2012), works particularly concerned with the lingering ghosts of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a tyranny initially backed by the CIA and defined by the inescapable gravitas of the modern epoch’s dichotomies. But Larraín’s concurrent, more particular interest is with the way we perceive such history and culture, the way they feed and distort each other. Particularly in an age of mass media, that great fount of mutual reference and levelling messaging so often sourced in the United States, the king of the heap in the Americas, the place where butterflies of intrigue and reaction have so often flapped their wings to cause earthquakes in Latin America during the fierce social and ideological ructions and sometimes outright conflict that defined the Cold War.
Neruda explores relatively familiar territory for Larraín in this regard, taking on an episode in the life of arguably Chile’s most famous cultural figure, the poet and political activist Pablo Neruda, whose experiences and career were forever inflected by the repressive tilt his country took in the 1940s and who died just as the Pinochet regime was ascending in the 1970s. That episode is turned by Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón into a Shakespearean pastoral comedy-drama like The Tempest, where banishment and eternal searching are the prices paid for honesty and the use of magic. Jackie, on the other hand, sends Larraín on a trip north to adapt a script by Noah Oppenheim and stage a shift of perspective, one located right at the great axis of power in second half of the 20th century at its most dazzling and frightening pivot: the end of the Kennedy administration, a grotesque play of blood and toppled power on just about the only modern stage Shakespeare’s tragedies could unfold without diminution. The two films offer a wealth of binaries contemplated in opposition – North America and South America, man and woman, communist vs. capitalist, political vs. creative power. Both films do, to a certain extent, exemplify a tendency in recent biopics to engage in portraiture through deliberately limited focus on the lives of their subjects. Neruda depicts only the few months in 1948 during which the poet attempted to remain hidden in Chile even whilst being declared verboten and hunted by the police, whilst Jackie concentrates almost entirely on the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy and his widow Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Kennedy’s attempts to define his legacy and her own life through the process of arranging his burial.
Neruda is inflected by a peculiar evanescence, at once elated and melancholic, and the use of arch literary tropes to reorganise the reality of the event into something befitting a memoriam to an artist who belonged unashamedly to the age of literary modernism, whilst Jackie depicts an attempt to turn violent, messy reality into a form of art itself. Neruda’s most overt conceit is to offer a viewpoint not through its title character but through his nemesis. This fictional antagonist is Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a fatherless by-product of the nation’s whorehouses and slums who has ennobled himself relatively by claiming the name and heritage of a founder of Chile’s police – a happy bastard, identifying himself with the state and its hard, disdainful fist. His narration, mordant and cynical and casually lyrical as we’d like the poet’s voice to be, drags the film along, offering a constant counterpoint to things seen on screen, delivering witty and withering putdowns of the nominal hero Neruda from the very start, when the Neruda (regular Larraín face Luis Gnecco) is enjoying the last moments of the gleefully feted, decadent artistic-bohemian life he leads even as a Senator of the nation and hero of both the Communist intelligentsia and proletariat. Thus we see Neruda, dolled up in drag amidst his amigos in their orgiastic revels, reciting his most popular poem for the billionth time, as the detective sardonically notes this mob of well-off, well-travelled, oversexed elitists claim to stand up for the ordinary people. But Neruda’s downfall is already nigh. He breaks with the President whose election he supported, González Videla (equally regular Larraín face Alfredo Castro), because Videla has imprisoned union leaders and striking miners in a concentration camp, as prelude to banning the Communist Party.
Neruda and his wife, the artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), try to cross the border into Argentina as they sense the heat rising, but are turned back on a technicality, and soon they’re forced to hide out in the apartment of a glum ally. So begins a game of hide and seek between artist and persecutor where Neruda lives books and missives to taunt and intrigue his unseen opponent, whilst the detective relishes the thought of the prestigious, high-living superstar forced to live a life of drudgery: “By now the poet must be chopping onions for his repugnant fish stew.” But the period sees Neruda more productive than ever, writing the poetic history Canto General and other works taking aim at the government, foiling the government through simple but effective devices for getting his words out. Neruda is blunt about its hero’s failings, his rampant priapic needs, his hunger for attention, his occasionally piggish treatment of his wife as their exile tests and finally nullifies their nonconformist union. But it also carefully teases out his ardent connection with Chileans of all stripes, the real fibre of his conscientiousness, and the peculiar place of the artist in their culture, so often barely detectable and yet equally so vital. Larraín illustrates such moments of genuine connection, as when Neruda visits a brothel and recites a poem for the prostitutes, including a transvestite chanteuse, who later recounts to Peluchonneau the sheer uplifting delight in the candidness of Neruda’s amity in contrast to the contempt and reproach of the law, and the power of his art to elevate. Neruda tries to assure a fellow Communist and hotel maid that the revolution when it comes will make everyone a project of glory rather than diminution to the lowly status she’s always known. Later, when Neruda’s exile is biting more sharply, he weepily hugs a street beggar and gives her his jacket as if his own problems are a mere irritation.
The detective’s hunt becomes all the more frustrating as he is constantly presented with the problem of the detachment of the people from the power he represents and their tendency to identify with the mercurial poet rather than the adamantine lawman. In a hilarious sequence, Peluchonneau has Neruda’s Dutch first wife invited on a radio show for the sake of character assassination, only for her to rhapsodise about his qualities, apart from the fact he owes her money. Meanwhile Neruda tests the limits of power with delight in the occasions he gets to treat his travails like a freeform artistic act, delighting in disguise – he dresses up as one of the prostitutes in the brothel to elude Peluchonneau, and later poses as a Mexican tourist in splendid white suit – and turning the act of the hunt into a game of signs and obtuse communication, a pursuit where the detective is trying to gain the measure of a system of thought and approach to life he’s purposefully rejected. Larraín employs some devices similar to Michael Almereyda’s equally eccentric biographical study Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (2015), particularly in the deliberately archaic and unconvincing scenes of characters riding in cars before back-projected landscapes. This calls back to both familiar classic Hollywood film technique but also recognises it as a vehicle of surrealist strangeness, a method of the poetic easily found in the supposedly stolid methods of old-fashioned moviemaking. The photography is reminiscent to that of No, which was shot on an old camcorder; the textures of digital cinema here, preternaturally sharp in stillness and fuzzy in motion, refuse sentimentality about the past whilst still sometimes isolating vistas of great beauty and capturing the feel of Chile, particularly during the final phase of the film. That portion depicts Neruda’s escape from Chile, a move sponsored by his Communist fellows as it seems increasingly inevitable he’ll be captured, whilst Pablo Picasso (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) is whipping up international interest in his plight in Paris.
Little of Neruda’s actual poetry is heard in the film, in part because of a recurring tragicomic joke that most people only want to hear the one poem over and over anyway – Neruda’s greatest hit – and because the film proposes to alchemise it into the texture of cinema itself, as Larraín dances through expressive refrains and motifs, alternating realism and hyperrealism, grit and romanticism, solid historical account and flight of metaphoric fancy. Peluchonneau is nominated as the poetic persona through which Neruda’s self-accosting, sometimes scornful, sometimes alienated contemplation of his place in the world is interrogated. Fillips of airy dialogue drop on the voiceover, as the detective calls the Andes “a wave that never breaks,” and evokes the ghosts of future past as Larraín’s camera explores the hellhole the dissident miners are exiled to in the midst of the Atacama Desert’s aptly desolate reaches. “Those who try to escape turn to pillars of salt,” Peluchonneau recites: “But no-one ever escapes, because the prison captain is a blue-eyed fox. His name is Augusto Pinochet.” The process of mythologising is contemplated as anyone who comes into contact with Neruda in the course of this adventure becomes subject to two layers of transformation, via Neruda’s artistic perspective and Larraín’s filmmaking, in both of which Neruda is the pole of all action. Neruda himself is a kind of artistic act: his real name is Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, a fact that’s used by the government as an excuse to prevent him leaving the country. When Peluchonneau encounters Delia after Neruda has taken his leave of her, heading for the border, she informs him that they’re not real people who have become woven into Neruda’s legend, but rather his creations who are struggling towards life.
The counterpoint of sound and vision in this manner, the restless, roaming quality of Larraín’s imagery and the ambient commentary by the voiceover, contrasts the game of motion with an increasingly contemplative, transformative perspective, a rite of passage for the innermost soul of the Chilean character, pulled by the unremitting gravitas of stern authoritarian nationalism on one hand and the expansive dreamscapes of the Latin American inheritance. The finale works as both sarcastic, antiheroic replay of such epic journeys in tales of dissidence and exile as those found in movies like Doctor Zhivago (1965), Cry Freedom (1987), and Kundun (1997), with hints of the Homeric grandiosity of westerns like The Searchers (1956) too, as Neruda and his entourage and Peluchonneau and his underlings venture into Chile’s rainy, mountainous, finally mystically-tinged southern regions. Here the detective discovers the limits of authority as a rich local man aids Neruda just for the anarchic pleasure of it, and Peluchonneau’s own henchmen knock him out and foil his mission, as they too don’t want him to succeed, or at least can’t be bothered venturing into danger’s way for his sake. But this is also the scene of a peculiarly rapturous movement towards apotheosis and rebirth. Peluchonneau, dazedly stumbling after his quarry into the snow-capped mountain peaks, “dies” but gains new existence as the emblem of his nation’s confused heart and avatar of the poet’s ability to redefine the national character, the sprout from a seed of awareness and possibility planted by Neruda’s art.
Jackie similarly deals with a person close to the political epicentre of a nation but also set at a tantalising, frustrating remove from it, forced to settle for becoming a psychological lodestone, and learning to work through the soft power of culture. It envisions Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) as a woman who tried to turn the seemingly supernal role of first lady into the post of national historical conscience, a mission described in recreating her famous television tour of the white house with all its wooden, tentative charm. The murder of her husband John (Caspar Phillipson), an act at once terrifyingly intimate and personal and also instantly the stuff of morbid public obsession, also provides the catalyst for her to take this effort to a larger, more consequential level, in the attempt set the appropriate seal on an epoch suddenly and violently curtailed without any apparent, natural climax. The film’s first third is a headlong experiential event with jarring contrasts between past and present, the present being Jackie’s private, one-and-one interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) one week after the assassination, and the event itself, pieced together in shards of gruelling detail. It’s made immediately clear that the interview Jackie is submitting to is intended as no purgative of raw emotion or the type of confessional we adore so much today, but a ruthlessly controlled exercise in directing and defining the face Jackie is showing to the world: the journalist has agreed to let her check and edit his notes. Jackie, with her preppie lisp suggesting a delicacy her spiky eyes belie, is still engaged in a campaign that began the instant her husband died, or perhaps has been waged since she married him.
Jackie shifts into flashback and recounts the immediate aftermath of the President’s death, an almost moment-by-moment recreation except for the crucial moment of the assassination itself, which instead comes in brief, ugly snatches, befitting Jackie’s own confused memory of it and emphasising the moment as something so fast and awful that it can be parsed and probed but never properly known – Jackie’s memories of her husband’s shattered head rolling on her lap, her flailing desperation on the limousine trunk, trying haplessly to collect piece of John’s skull, and the limousine’s flight for safety along a motorway like a headlong rush into a great white void, are just as mysterious to her as to any observer. The passage from downtown Dallas back to the White House is described in exacting terms and clinical detail, stations of the cross visited as Jackie watches Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) get sworn in whilst still wearing her blood-soaked Chanel suit, waits through his autopsy, and rides with his coffin along with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard). Just as Neruda notes the seeds of later history, so here too we glimpse defining moments in the midst of seemingly chaotic events, as Bobby casually sparks Johnson’s feud with him by bossing him around even though he is now in command. These scenes are a tour-de-force for Larraín in conjuring the sensation, at once intense yet detached, of intense shock and grief, and for Portman in capturing those feelings. Her Jackie fumbles for clarity and necessary detail, making plans and declarations of intent and defiance, amidst friends and figures of import, their stunned, patient solicitude in stark contrast to her hyper-intense grappling for focus. Jackie reenters the White House still in that suit, a figure out of Greek drama, the queen suddenly without king or kingdom, dressed in rags of primal violence.
The sharp contrasts of Neruda and Jackie’s backdrops, the neo-imperial glamour of the Kennedy White House and the earthy environs of post-war Chile where Neruda must hide out, are nonetheless defined by a common sense of space as a form of meaning. The constriction of the poetic impulses Peluchonneau relishes imposed on Neruda contrasts the stage for realising a grand vision of a newly mature sense of power and prestige the White House offered Jackie, as backdrop for high statecraft and meaningful action. Bobby roams its space dogged and taunted by the memories of great acts, particularly a room that was formerly Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet room and the place where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, now the nursery for the Kennedy kids, where Jackie registers the same atmosphere as one of beneficent calm. But this stage turns into a trap for Jackie, filled with the detritus of an irrevocably ended life – the antiques she laboured to restore now have arguably more substance to them. The nature of the battle ahead of her, clearly in her mind even in the frantic moments after John’s death, is how to ensure that his tenure in the office doesn’t get instantly lost in the flow of events and the indignities of history. The Kennedy family wants to claim John’s body and spirit it back to the family plot, but Jackie, with her awareness of history and the role of purposeful theatricality in it, instead lays down a plan to see John entombed as poet-king with pomp patterned after that of Lincoln’s funeral. She picks out a space in Arlington for his grave, braving the sucking mud and rain that lap at her high heels as she finds the perfect spot for the fallen Cincinnatus. But her orchestrations are threatened by possible turf wars as Johnson’s new administration takes charge and with the lingering anxiety that John’s accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald might not have been acting alone. Other conspirators might try to strike at the funeral procession.
Jackie extends the concerns of Neruda but also more urgently those of No in contemplation of political theatre and its meaning – the use of artifice in defining a common sense of reality. The purposefully poppy, sugary flavour of the advertising at the heart of No, wielded as part of a successful campaign to unseat Pinochet’s government, is here contrasted by the grim and grand business of mourning and memorialising. Jackie finds both an accomplice and a cynical check in this project in Bobby, who, equally angry and frustrated, rails against the amount of work left unfinished, without a firm foundation of achievement except for the double-edged sword that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie on the other hand sees this as precisely what lends mythos to her project, the image of the hero cut down midst-battle. Sarsgaard’s casting as Bobby is cunning – not quite as All-American handsome or perma-boyish as the original, he nonetheless readily wields the sharp, critical, hard-bitten intelligence of a foiled and internally injured princeling, matched by Portman’s equal evocation of a similarly unsentimental, but determined spark. Jackie and Bobby’s shared scenes crackle from the mutual awareness of their status as pieces still on the board of political chess but stripped of offensive power and protection, both of them leaking anger and resentment, whilst also riven by powerful, squalid emotion and trying to play appropriate roles as grieving loved ones. “History’s harsh,” Bobby hisses in a squall of bitter pathos as he beholds his sister-in-law as she counsels him not to second-guess himself: “We’re ridiculous. Look at you.” Meanwhile Jackie struggles with the necessity of telling her two children they’ve lost their father, as well as perhaps the grim necessity of using them as props in the theatre of grief. And there’s the looming inevitability of being turfed out of the White House to find whatever life remains for her.
Jackie is a study in grief and grieving, whilst also analysing how such a figure as the wife of the President of the United States, and indeed any major figure, is so often obligated to find ways to express private and personal feeling in public and discernible ways. Left alone, briefly, in the great sepulchre that is the presidential mansion, she drinks, dresses up, and listens to the soundtrack of that fateful musical Camelot, Richard Burton’s stentorian grandeur scoring as she revisits the yardsticks of a high-life all the while aware that already the living reality of that tenure and the man she shared it with is rapidly slipping into abstraction. Jackie’s true emotional furore, her anger at John’s infidelities and feeling of being pathetically abandoned, she admits to a priest (John Hurt) the White House staffers find for her. The latter part of Jackie rhymes and counterpoints fleeting moments in free-flowing, Malickian snatches. The islet of graceful success that was a performance by Pablo Casals (Roland Pidoux), representing the “Camelot” dream for Jackie versus the heady pomp of John’s actual funeral. The admissions of dark and inchoate feeling Jackie offers the priest versus the carefully crafted but perhaps no less honest descriptions she offers the reporter. The central, irreducible urgency of John’s death and the moments of delirium that followed it, and the moments of pleasure and frivolity that defined the Kennedys’ marriage at its best, still perhaps to be plucked from the fire.
Though Jackie lacks a device as clever as Neruda’s fictionalised antagonist to tether its ideas together, the same motif is present in Jackie, as the priest and the journalist are both known only by those blank job descriptions, functions of its heroine’s designs, the two faces of the human project, private and public, chorus to her life. The priest sees the anger, sorrow, and desperation, the reporter witnesses Jackie’s thinly veiled contempt as a Yankee aristocrat for media hype and frosty, wilful self-composure in the face of desolation and solitude, but both men are only ever seeing a facet of a person. Portman’s performance is both refined enough not to mute the intense emotion of the character but also detached enough to remind us it’s all an act on some level. The one moment of unmediated feeling comes fairly early in the film, as Jackie wipes her husband’s gore from her face, a distraught mess. It’s a sight difficult to countenance and stands as a biting corrective to the semi-pornographic quality of emotive insight we so often seem to demand in this mode of biography. So here’s a great woman with her husband’s blood splashed over her face. Are you not entertained? For the most part, Jackie counters this, via its lead character’s frost intransigence, with a determined look instead at the sublimation of emotion into creation. We see, bit by bit, the legend of JFK and Camelot fashioned to make sense of a terrible moment and to offer a new locus of political meaning.
It’s possible to read the film as reclamation and a riposte to Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), a film named for the man but which also utterly erased him and the horror inherent in his demise from its focus, chasing the echo of bewilderment and derangement that followed his death through an endless house of mirrors. Jackie by contrast depicts the paranoia squirming under the surface of the days following the President’s death, the fear of guns and madmen and conspirators in every shadow, but also dedicates itself to studying the acts that rob such spectres of power, as well as the utterly intimate, corporeal reality of such a death. The flaws of both Larraín’s films are as complimentary as their qualities. Neruda has a subtle but cumulatively telling difficulty finding a powerful end-point for its cleverness, in part because there is no natural and obvious climax for a story about the unseen influence of literature. The second half of Jackie maintains its stylistic intensity, but cannot entirely hide the rhythm of the familiar portrait biopic blueprint in Oppenheim’s script – here’s the scene where she reaches a crisis point, here’s the scene where she stands up for herself against a usurper (Max Casella’s Jack Valenti), here’s the scene where she shows spunk and challenges Charles de Gaulle to join her in marching through the streets, jolts of tinny hype in a film that needs none.
Jackie’s authority remains on a visual level, as it zeroes in for a climactic emphasis on the point where private and public experience coalesce, and Jackie, wreathed in black veil, triumphant in her desolation, becomes martyr. Through Larraín’s eye, the empress of the Yankees becomes, both fittingly and sarcastically, an incarnation of that most Latin American of mythical figures, La Llorona, the spectral mother who cries for her lost children but who also mediates all the grief in the world. But she’s also suddenly a fashion plate, as Jackie sees from a car her personal style on sale in storefronts – pop icon, avatar of chic and grace under pressure. Two such personas could be considered a form of insanity or a fulfilment of a yin-yang view of existence, the withered branch and green leaf. It would be easy to interpret Jacqueline Kennedy as Larraín’s avatar as both student and sceptic of the arts of political myth, disgusted by its necessity. But Larraín’s fascination is more than merely cynical, signalled in No through his ability to see both the absurd and important facets of such arts. The innermost thesis of both Neruda and Jackie is the necessity of such construction, the need to create ways of seeing to counteract the spasmodic absurdity of communal life, which so often seems to take random swerves from the best and worst sides of natures. Even as the fact of that absurdity remains impossible to deny.