The biopic as a cinematic genre goes a long way back. Long enough that certain tropes have started to stick around it. Because of that, it's perceived by many people as formulaic and simply not-very-interesting cinema. And they are usually right. There are many biopics that are superficial stories that try to pass as inspirational. So, when the highly anticipated biopic of Jacqueline Kennedy released its first trailer, I feared for the worst. Thankfully, Jackie is not your average biopic.
The movie, directed by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, is an insightful look at Jackie's life in the three days immediately following JFK's assassination framed by her famous Life magazine interview. It's a deep and profound analysis of Jackie both as an icon and a woman. An exciting and subtly emotional portrait of a woman in extraordinary circumstances.
Above all, Jackie is a study of loss and legacy. A deep essay on myth-making and the strength that images have when molding national consciousness.
And, at the center of it all, stands Natalie Portman with a subtle, nuanced and captivating performance as the titular character. She embodies Jackie and captures the essence of her demure yet determined personality.
In that, the costume design plays an essential role in helping the actress build her character and the audience buy into the performance as well. It plays an essential role in bringing uncanny verisimilitude to the narrative of the story.
RECREATING AN ICON
The costume design for the movie was created by Madeline Fontaine, a French Costume Designer with a long trajectory in French cinema with works such as Amelie (2001), Un long dimanche de fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement, 2004), Astérix aux jeux olympiques (Asterix at the Olympic Games, 2008), Séraphine (2008), Yves Saint Laurent (2014) and the recent TV show Versailles (2015-). Because Jackie is her first work in the American Industry, this is also her first Academy nomination.
The main idea behind this design was, from the get-go, to reproduce the Jackie look as faithfully as possible. The clothes, the hair, the make-up themselves were Jackie Kennedy's façade. This made it essential to reproduce them as close to reality as possible.
I do not feel proud of any look in particular. I hope they all participate to give credibility and sensibility to this Jackie. - Madeline Fontaine, Costume Designer -
JACKIE; BEYOND THE ICON
The costume design for Jackie is, in its essence, radically different from any other costume design nominated this year. It's not about reflecting the character's state of mind, her arc or even her world. It's all about recreating images that have resonated (and continue to resonate) through modern history.
That's why achieving exact replicas of certain Jackie looks was so essential for the success of this movie. Particularly, of four of them: the red Dior dress of the White House tour, the pink Chanel of the assassination and the mourning public outfits of the funeral.
It's no surprise then, that these three looks also happen to mark three very distinct moments for the character and the narrative of the movie.
The first of them, Dior's Red Dress, is used as an image of hope; Jackie and the Kennedy Administration before it all collapsed. An image of elegance, class and poise.
It's the representation of Jackie's public persona; the image we still have of her. Therefore, it was essential for the filmmakers to have this dress be as close to the original as possible.
To achieve that, they invested a lot of time and effort into looking for the same fabric and performing numerous camera tests to achieve the right texture and color. The obsession with recreation went as far as creating a pink version of the dress in order to achieve the same gray tone in the black and white footage because the red dress looked too dark otherwise.
We knew we’d have to come as close as possible to the collective memory of Jackie established over the course of those days, which were so well documented by the media, but it was also very important to get the emotion just right; to help Natalie on her way to becoming Jackie. - Madeline Fontaine, Costume Designer -
That detail in the replica was even more important when it came to successfully recreate the assassination and its immediate aftermath. Let's just say that that pink suit with the pillbox hat was essential to selling Portman's performance; it's such an iconic image that was virtually impossible to use creative licenses to her look.
Such were the efforts to closely recreate the costume that they managed to get Chanel to lend them the buttons, the chain and the period label for the dress.
But, much like in real life, the real iconic image is the pink dress covered in JFK's blood that shocked the whole nation during that fateful 22nd of November, 1963. It's an image of earth-shattering tragedy. And, because the movie puts such extensive emphasis on her choice of using that dreadful image to protect her husband's short-lived legacy, the costume design had to deliver on the gruesomeness of the image.
Which it does. My personal favorite scene of the movie is the tear-jerking sequence in which Jackie finally undresses and cleans up after the long hours enduring the trauma of walking around covered in her husband's blood and brains. Every piece of bloodstain clothing she gets off is another layer of her mask that falls down and allows us to start seeing the pain beneath it.
The image contributes immensely to our realization of the depth of the devastation she has undergone, before she steps into the shower and at last washes the blood from her hair and body. - Madeline Fontaine, Costume Designer -
And, speaking of beneath; the undergarments shown in this movie are gold for any history costume lover. The use of historically accurate underwear is essential to achieve a period's correct silhouette. And the underwear in this movie is on point historically speaking.
It's really nice to see that in their efforts to closely recreate the big iconic Jackie looks they didn't overlook the little details.
The next of the exact replicas of the movie are her public outfits of mourning: both the costume she wore when the casket was brought to the capitol and later during the funeral.
These were particularly important because they were part of her careful planning to establish the tone and magnitude of the tragedy and how the public would remember it.
This is a carefully crafted image soaked in symbolism and pain; Jackie is presenting her as a mourning wife, but also as the mourning mother of the whole country. She, and the whole country, are saying goodbye to much more than a man; they are saying goodbye to the dream of a better America, to the America they had dreamed of.
The dark, black clothes, the veils, her whole demeanor... make this so much grander. And, therefore, it becomes Jackie who defines the magnitude of the loss in the nation's mind. That is the real power of an image, and costume is part of that image.
And that's a pretty good reason to advocate for recreation in this particular case. But, inevitably, there are instances in the movie when the costume department had to create original designs. And these still needed to feel genuine to the character and the period. The most notable of these were the many dresses she tries on during the first Camelot montage.
This mid-story piece shows Jackie hitting rock bottom as she drunkenly changes into her whole wardrobe whilst playing the Camelot soundtrack that she used to listen with her husband. It's a visual and narrative stunning sequence that shows her grasping at the only thing that she has left from her brief time as a First Lady, trying to go back to the past, in a way.
None of the gowns shown in the sequence are "real" Jackie dresses, but they all feel like something she would have worn at that point in her life. And that credibility is essential for this sequence to work.
The dress that she wears during the Pau Casals concert follows in the same category: inspired by her, but designed exclusively for the movie.
But all of these are public dresses, therefore, they speak to Jackie's public image. But what about the private Jackie?
Jackie was so deeply protective of her privacy throughout her whole life and, particularly, through her political years, that most people picture her at her home still wearing little dresses and pillbox hats. But that couldn't be farther from the truth.
Not only she didn't wear that, she avoided skirts altogether. Even in the '60s, Jackie was a great advocate of the use of pants. Something which, at the time, would have created a huge backlash. A curious fact; such was the fear that the Administration had of paparazzi snapping a picture of her wearing pants that the White House security had to clear the lawn and the premises every time they knew she was going about the House in pants. It might seem outrageous now (and with good reason), but back then the first lady just didn't wear pants.
That's why I was so happy to see her depicted wearing pants during the private interview with the Life reporter that serves as the framing device of the movie.
Not only is she shown wearing pants, but she is also shown in a distinctively more informal and simple style than her public persona. That helps underline the marked dichotomy between her public persona and her private life that is so often overlooked.
The clothes are obviously very much a part of the facade that we know about Jackie. Madeline, our costume designer, did an incredible job recreating the wardrobe she was wearing in particular scenes. - Natalie Portman, actress -
Last but not least, there's her Camelot dress; the red dress with a cape she wears during the final flashback of the movie. This is also an original created for the movie.
This stylish yet elegant gown helps set the tone for the ending of the movie; enhancing and reinforcing the incredible sense of lost dreams and hopes that both the character and the American public felt at the time.
Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.
Jackie is an evocative and deeply poignant take on loss and grief through the exploration of a fascinating character in American History. It's also a wonderful essay on the power of images to define a legacy in popular culture.
And, in this particular case, the costumes are there to help create the character around the actress performance and to help set the bar for authenticity.
Honestly I hope I did not betray the memory of this American icon. It is very delicate to be confronted by personalities that have existed and are still living in so many memories. - Madeline Fontaine, Costume Designer -
It certainly a well-deserved nomination and was actually the movie that I thought was going to win Costume Design. And yes, I recall what I said in my 2016's Favorite Costume Designs article... and I totally recant from it now. I have to recognize that, though I wasn't much impressed with it the first time I saw it, the work done in the Costume Department has definitely grown on me since then and, should I had to write now my 2016 favorite list, I would definitely include it.---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
This is the second of the Oscar Retrospective 2017! Join me next time when I'll be looking at Florence Foster Jenkins! Meanwhile, check out last year's Retrospective covering: The Revenant, Cinderella, The Danish Girl, Carol and Mad Max: Fury Road.
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