Women Face The Unpredictable In 'Jackie,' 'Things To Come'

Dec 2, 2016
Originally published on December 5, 2016 10:44 am
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Two new films look at women who in mid-life find themselves in drastically altered circumstances. One is "Jackie," with Natalie Portman playing Jacqueline Kennedy. The other is the French film "Things To Come" starring Isabelle Huppert. Critic Bob Mondello says they would make a fine award season double feature.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The philosophy professor played by Isabelle Huppert in "Things To Come" is happiest when surrounded by books. She lives a life of the mind, all business when her school is engulfed by protests, complaining to her publishers that their gaudy new cover makes her bestselling textbook look like an ad for M&Ms...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THINGS TO COME")

ISABELLE HUPPERT: (Speaking French).

MONDELLO: ...Or just sitting in the apartment she shared for 25 years with a husband who also lives a life of the mind. Or so she thinks, until he mentions meeting someone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THINGS TO COME")

ANDRE MARCON: (Speaking French).

MONDELLO: "So why tell me?" she wonders. Remember, they're French.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THINGS TO COME")

HUPPERT: (Speaking French)

MONDELLO: Because he's moving in with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THINGS TO COME")

MARCON: (Speaking French).

HUPPERT: (Speaking French).

MONDELLO: This is not the only thing Natalie's dealing with, but it's the one that shakes her up. She tells a former student, who is himself going his own way and challenging her, that she and her husband listened to Brahms and Schumann for 20 years, and now, at 50-something, she gets to change the tune. "Just think," she says, "my kids are gone..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THINGS TO COME")

HUPPERT: (Speaking French).

MONDELLO: "...My husband left me, my mom died. I've found my freedom."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THINGS TO COME")

HUPPERT: (Speaking French).

MONDELLO: Her eyes tell you that liberte as an intellectual construct doesn't quite match what she's experiencing. Huppert has always been natural on camera, but playing a character based partly on herself, partly on writer-director Mia Hanson Love's mother, she's breathtakingly understated, wanting to be defined by ideas, not circumstances, even as circumstances buffet her. The film's title in French is "The Future," but the translation "Things To Come" feels more accurate. Huppert peering into a middle distance, head held high, sees not so much a future, bright or dark, but a lot of disconcertingly unpredictable things to come.

The unpredictable has already happened as "Jackie" gets under way. Jacqueline Kennedy, nerve endings still raw, is meeting a journalist who wants her perspective on the assassination that shattered her life and the dreams of a generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JACKIE")

NATALIE PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) It's been just one week, already they're treating him like some dusty old artifact to be shelved away. It's no way to be remembered.

BILLY CRUDUP: (As The Journalist) And how would you like him remembered, Mrs. Kennedy?

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) I - you understand that I will be editing this conversation just in case I don't say exactly what I mean?

MONDELLO: Editing doesn't quite do justice to the control Natalie Portman's Jackie plans to exert over this interview. Though fragile, she has an exacting notion of how her story should be told. Something that's also true of Chilean director Pablo Larrain, who doesn't so much tell the story as piece together a mosaic, jump cutting from this framing interview...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JACKIE")

CRUDUP: (As The Journalist) What did the bullet sound like?

MONDELLO: ...To the almost stream-of-consciousness memories it prompts, the camera staying close to the first lady as she staggers through a psychological minefield, breaking the news to her children...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JACKIE")

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) How do I do this?

MONDELLO: ...Watching Lyndon Johnson assert himself...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JACKIE")

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) What an awful way to begin your presidency.

MONDELLO: ...And most of all, determining the shape of a funeral that will both promote her husband's legacy and have a whole world in tears. The riderless horse, the heads of state walking with her behind the coffin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JACKIE")

CRUDUP: (As The Journalist) What do you say to those who say he didn't deserve it, the scale of it? I mean, he was a great president but he didn't win the Civil War, for instance.

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) It was a funeral for the president of the United States.

CRUDUP: (As The Journalist) Your husband drove cars, he didn't ride horses.

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) Yes, and there should have been more of them - more soldiers, more crying, more and more cameras.

CRUDUP: (As The Journalist) I'm guessing you won't allow me to write any of that.

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) No, because I never said that.

MONDELLO: Portman makes the former first lady mesmerizing in her contradictions - uncompromising yet wracked by doubt, fearful that with the Kennedy legacy in the balance, her best efforts have fallen short.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JACKIE")

CRUDUP: (As The Journalist) You were at the center of it all, Mrs. Kennedy. And I'd imagine it's impossible to have any perspective from that vantage point, but I can assure you that it was a spectacle.

MONDELLO: Much the same could be said of the film "Jackie," a harrowing portrait of a woman who shaped history with her grief. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.