Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Shantay, Bouvier

To say that Jackie is a camp classic in the making isn't to say that it's a bad film. It's even, at times, a very good film, particularly in its formal mastery which extends to the composition, camerawork, palette and score. But the qualities in Jackie are precisely what prevent it from being trash, thereby making it camp. The film's artifice and mannerisms, its purposeful vulgarity and body horror, its quotable bon mots, its impish delight in tearing down institutions, and last but not least the huge female performance at its centre, make it, at least in this viewer's eyes, a bona fide gay trip.

Jackie is a film about a woman struggling to keep alive her public image and uphold the carefully constructed idea of the American fairytale. Jackie Kennedy's turmoil in the days after the assassination of JFK, then, becomes almost a pretext for a revisionist disquisition on femininity, sexuality, motherhood. The film does not pretend to show the real woman: rather, in a succession of fragmented vignettes, it shows us how the figure of Jackie Kennedy responds to a series of situations. This gives us a sense of a woman always on show, and banishes any attempt at psychological verisimilitude. Hand in hand with this, the institution that Jackie Kennedy was the smiling face of, the White House, is revisited as a sort of prison, with its cavernous rooms and impersonal fittings. This betrays on the part of the filmmakers a somewhat malicious streak, which takes an irreverent pleasure in revisiting and despoiling American iconography. This approach is a cousin to queer readings of history and womanhood, which have traditionally subverted positions of power.

The film's jittering, frantic rhythms, often accompanied by a feverish score by Mica Levi, augment the sense of unreality. Many of the edits between scenes cut off whole sentences as they jump to another scene merely seconds later: this presents us with a fragmented look at a character, and forbids us to see Jackie on a sincere, emotional level; the movie is not about interiority. Some of the editing is so sharp that it becomes almost funny, which makes the experience of watching it more pleasurable and again distances the viewer from an earnest reading of it.

Meanwhile, Jackie positively revels in blood and mud and body horror. Watching an ersatz Jackie Kennedy wipe blood off her face - and wipe it very badly, so that she is as much wiping blood over her face as she is removing it - is at once horrifying, and shriekingly camp, as it is very hard to take seriously. This is the blood and brains of the legendary president John F. Kennedy! The whole scene is bound up in an attempt to maintain image and promote her femininity: it is played as a grotesque reversal of another scene in which Jackie prepares for an event in front of the mirror. You could compare it to a defeated Glenn Close removing her make-up at the end of Les Liaisions Dangereuses, except it lurches into outright gore. Another scene of Jackie escaping a political retinue to charge through a muddy graveyard in her high heels plays on the same level, dirtying and dragging the pristine image until its ironies feel pointed and a little hysterical.

Natalie Portman's incarnation of Jackie Kennedy is straight-up drag, let's say it. A full-blown performance that isn't afraid to tip into badness and frequently does, it relies on some astoundingly expressionist tics and mannerisms, and gives us a voice absolutely crying out for drunken mimicry. There are many scenes in which Portman's deliciously over-the-top accent sounds exactly like the gay icon Little Edie, from the Maysles' brothers' camp classic Grey Gardens. Of course, Little Edie was a cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier, so Portman's accent could be spot-on, but the parallel once set is there to stay: and so the White House becomes a sort of grey garden for this woman whose best days are behind her and is struggling to show face to someone seeking to document her. This level of meta-textuality is, in the words of drag queen Latrice Royale, high drag, darling, high drag.

Portman's Jackie, with her wicked accent and her withering put-downs for the ages, joins a gallery of flawed but strong women seeking to control their image and at once be liberated, within the shackles of their gender. Little Edie, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Faye-Dunaway-as-Joan-Crawford: these are the points of reference for this studied, but certainly vampish performance. The scene where Portman takes a deep puff on a cigarette before saying "and I don't smoke", and another scene in which she elegantly slurs, "only crass and stupid people commit suicide", have all the lazy zing you could possibly require. Gays flock to this sort of performance because it reflects back to them an identity that is both a gift and a curse, something to dream of and fear: the idea of playing with identity like that is queer in the extreme. (The camp doesn't stop at Portman's performance: Peter Sarsgaard's reading of the line "we're just the beautiful people!" should become legendary if there is any justice, and Jackie's interior decoration adviser is played by Richard E. Grant for crying out loud.) The cherry on the cake is an extended central sequence in which Jackie tries on a succession of evening gowns while smoking, popping pills and getting wrecked, to the sound of the original Broadway recording of 'Camelot'. I searched for John Waters in the credits but he wasn't there.

Jackie isn't only these things. It is also an extremely pointed and timely decimation of the dream that America sells to the world, a critique of the supposed righteousness of the presidency. To see Jackie Kennedy talk about JFK's predecessors in the White House, for instance, is to be reminded of its current incumbent, who is set upon devaluing the presidency to a low never seen before. But the central quality of Jackie for this viewer at least and, I hope, for drag queens across the world for years to come, is the film's playfulness, its artifice, its some-time staleness, its vulgarity, its heightened performativity, in short its prevailing if inadvertent fabulousness. Grab a Martini and your loudest fag pal, and hie thee to a shriek-along Jackie extravaganza!