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Review: Pablo Larraín's "Neruda" and "Jackie"

Nathaniel R reporting from the NYFF/TIFF as these films played at both fests... 

Fortieth birthdays don't get much better than this. In August Chile's most celebrated filmmaker Pablo Larraín turned the big 4-0 just after his excellent new film Neruda opened in his home country. One month later Jackie, his first English language picture, joined Neruda on the international festival circuit to even more excitement. Both are likely and deserving Oscar nominees come January. Pretty good year.

This turn of events would rather shock 2008 me, scarred by watching Larraín's brutal sophomore effort Tony Manero. That film, his first to really penetrate the international circuit, centered on a homicidal man obsessed with Saturday Night Fever during the Pinochet era. Larraín's subsequent efforts Post Mortem, the Oscar nominated No, and The Club, never lost the aggressive political soul and confrontational fire that characterized that breakthrough. But more and more he's managed to channel that into incrementally more accessible, even warmer films -- though "warmer" is a silly word when describing a room temperature just shy of "freezing." 

Certainly Jackie, his most accessible feature since No (which remains his most playful) could not be described as "warm" but that angry fire that can make his films so difficult to watch is also a godsend for this particular story. That fury burns away all the fussiness of the cobwebs of the history picture genre. Larraín's inability to make "easy" pictures complicates this portait of a First Lady in crisis immediately following her husband's assassination in all the right ways. The score by Mica Levy, who gifted Under the Skin with such alien creepiness, is expertly disconcerting and intrusive at strange moments. The gorgeous period costuming only highlights Portman's arch hauteur and the errant blood spoiling the pure color; indeed all the technical aspects from editing to production design serve up something like high-end beauty while also remaining essentially uncomfortable.  Rarely has a picture about events 50 plus years in the past felt so immediate and bruising.

And felt so intimate, too. Though many contemporary pictures default to claustrophically tight closeups out of fealty to the phones or laptops that will eventually showcase them rather than storytelling efforts, nothing is less than purposeful in Jackie. When we're not staring all too closely at Natalie Portman's magnificent and excitingly hostile performance -- her fierce steel dares us to think again about the absurd notion that we know this woman due to the familiarity of her image -- Larraín and his cinematographer and production designer trap us alone in empty giant rooms with her or in much smaller places with too many people crowded around her. The only time when this isn't true is in a sequence which is, I'd argue, the film's least successful when Jackie visits with a priest.

If, in the end Jackie is almost too unnerving -- it comes as a relief when it ends (and this is not a knock on the well judged brief running time) -- one senses that the picture would be much poorer if it were anything like an easy sit. 

Neruda is, in its sneaky way, as subversive about its genre as Jackie. Neruda tells the historically true but perhaps not often true story of the famous poet Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) in exile in his own counry in the 1940s when the political tide turns against the Communist party to which he belongs. The government official Videla (Larrain regular Alfredo Castro) hires an officer Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal) to hunt down the beloved world famous poet.

While Neruda is based on a true story (Neruda really being a world famous poet, Communist and political fugitive) and is narrated like so many historical dramas are, Larrain and the screenwriter Guillermo Calderón playfully subvert expectations of the genre from the very beginning. The narration, so often the dullifying bane of well meaning dramas is instead a source of real pleasure. We are introduced to Neruda and his social circles and the political players by Óscar Peluchonneau before we actually meet him. One of the funniest beats that sets the strange but wonderful tone is when Peluchonneau, while describing the party we're watching at the beginning, introduces us to many of the players. When the camera lands on Neruda's wife he simply states "I don't get her."

This immediately reminds you of how literal and expository most narration is in movies and how it's not really going to be that here. Just as Peluchonneau is never quite sure what to make of the man he's chasing (he's often three steps behind Neruda, who isn't even hiding that well and loves to leave him clues) we're never quite sure what to make of Peluchonneau. It's a perfect surreal touch for a story about a man whose voice spoke poetically if not always plainly to millions. And who had to deliver his writing piecemeal and with subterfuge on the run. Gnecco and Bernal don't share scenes in the traditional way but they definitely share the movie with wonderful work, leaning into the comedy of self-regarding artistry without ever losing the pathos. 

Is Peluchonneau telling us the truth? Does he even understand the story? Is he the protagonist or merely a sidebar plaything of Neruda's? Peluchonneau may not always know what he's doing and Neruda himself may also lean similarly towards self delusion but Larraín himself is always in control of this strangely funny but ultimately moving historical drama. 

Grades: Both films A-?
Oscar Chances: Most definitely. Across the board for Jackie. As for Neruda, if the Foreign Language Film race ever had such things as locks (it doesn't!), I'd be tempted to call this one.  

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Reader Comments (37)

This is what a leading actress looks like in a movie trailer. Take note , fans of certain actress.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTruth

So Portman a threat even though she has an Oscar.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMARKGORDON

Shelley Winters, Glenda Jackson, and Jodie Foster all won 2nd Oscars on their 3rd nominations.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Add Dianne Wiest to that list above.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Ugh it's so unfair how Natalie is going to win a 2nd Oscar with ease despite having such a mediocre career before Amy and Viola can even win their 1st.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNadia

Hilary Swank and Sally Field won 2nd Oscars while their careers between nods was crap and their post 2nd win careers aren't much either.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Yeah I know it's not uncommon, but it's still annoying. No matter how great Natalie is in Jackie, she does NOT need a 2nd Oscar.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNadia

I wish voters would feel an urgency to award Annette Bening. I mean we have Blanchett (BA 2nd) and Moore (BA 1st). Happy Brie Larson has her Oscar. She can do whatever she wants with her career from here on out. Davis really needs to win now and in BA. BSA is meaningless for a woman of color to win. Since as I said elsewhere on this site BSA is a renegade category where anyone can be nominated and win.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Yes totally forgot about Annette too. She is so overdue. Jesus, it'd be so hilariously sad if she lost to Natalie AGAIN.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNadia

Neruda is wonderful. I think it's a movie that will reward repeat viewing, with its playful manipulation of reality and convention. I loved Tony Manero (unpleasant though it definitely was), liked Post Mortem, and didn't care for No or The Club, so this was a big treat. I'm seeing Jackie next week and my expectations couldn't be higher - though whether that's a good thing or not remains to be seen.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Nadia, can you imagine those bad odds AND Bening's terrible luck if that were to happen? To lose twice to Swank and then to Portman in the same category?

I don't ever make a point of engaging in Oscar predictions, but I would lay odds that there will be at least one black winner in the acting categories, and my gut says Davis. Either way, I'm excited for Jackie and am rooting for Portman, whom I still believe richly deserved her trophy for Black Swan.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

I would lay odds that there will be at least one black winner in the acting categories, and my gut says Davis. Either way, I'm excited for Jackie and I'm rooting for Portman

Are you assuming Davis goes supporting?

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

In response to the earlier comment that Portman doesn't NEED a second Oscar.
With all due respect, comments like this are what make the awards so frustrating. You are correct, she doesn't NEED a second Oscar. No one does. But if she gives the best performance of the year, she DESERVES the Oscar, regardless of her track record. More often than not, those who have lost repeatedly are simply victims of bad timing. The idealist in me longs for the day when awards are given for merit only, whether you've won twenty times or never been nominated.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

/3rtful, my hunch is that Davis will win wherever she's nominated if she's nominated at all.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Better Natalie Portman win her second than Emma Stone win her first just because she Single White Female'd Lindsay Lohan's career.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRahul

Better Natalie Portman win her second than Emma Stone win her first just because she Single White Female'd Lindsay Lohan's career.

Please continue and don't spare a detail.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

That trailer is sensational (my favorite of the year) and it certainly sells Portman's performance. The focus is on her the entire time.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Natalie will not win an Oscar. She is no Streep, and this is not her The Iron Lady. She already has an Oscar, which is more than generous, and the public rejection of her film will make all of this hype go away. The movie will underperform and once word of mouth gets out that its a little art film, she will fade back to the B-List.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMinerva

All you people ( some with details that must take hours to look up .. any life??? ) WHO is going to give the BEST PERFORMANCE ... not who needs to get an Oscar.

I vote for my favorite performance... have not seen it yet!!!

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Completely agree with Jeff on this one. The winner should be the actress who gives the best performance out of the nominees. Bening, Davis, and Adams may be overdue, but if Portman or Stone give the more beloved performances that work better in the context of their movies then they should win even if they either already have an Oscar or if people don't see them as being "due."

Now, if we've seen all of the movies and still feel like the overdue actresses gave the better performances, then that's one thing. But the second we start championing that awards should go to the most overdue person without considering if it's actually the best in our eyes, then we wind up with winners like Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart or Kate Winslet in The Reader and then everyone will end up complaining anyway.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoey

Except she already won an Oscar for her performance in Black Swan when it can be argued that she didn't deserve it. And let's be real, her campaign was OTT that year, so while she won based on the strength of her performance, they were other factors that determined her win as well. I actually like her in it but in my eyes, Michelle Williams deserved to win. It's just annoying how Natalie gets to win for career best performances so easily while so many other actors end up winning for performances a lot of people don't consider their best and subsequently get backlash for it. I don't care how petty that sounds. The Oscars are never about the truly BEST performance anyways.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNadia

So yeah, I'm annoyed Natalie gets to win for her best performances while Julianne couldn't win for Far From Heaven, Leo couldn't for The Wolf of Wall Street, Kate couldn't for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jeff couldn't for The Last Picture Show, etc..

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNadia

Troy, yikes I completely forgot Annette lost twice to Hilary as well. Ugh she has the worst absolute luck.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNadia

2010 was a freak year in which all five nominated actresses would make respectable winners (Portman, Bening, Kidman, Lawrence in her most deserved nod and Williams). It is a mighty fine line up and I salivate for years like that. Even if one prefers one of the other four (I liked Kidman best at the time, but Bening has grown the most on me over time), I can't really entertain the notion that Portman's tour de force performance was undeserving.

I am very excited to hear 2016 is shaping up to be an year like that, with as many performances as to make even the 10 slots of the Golden Globes competitive.

It also amuses me that four of the 2010 women are in the conversation again (Bening and Portman in lead, Williams and Kidman in supporting).

I am looking forward to seeing all the movies and I have a feeling that, regardless of who gets the Oscar, this year the actressexuals will be the winners!

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

Carmen -- EXACTLY. This is quite a year for actressexuals which is a nice balm considering how sucky the year is in every other real life way.

October 7, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Very excited to watch this movie and it looks visually appealing enough that I will watch it in the movie theatre. Not a huge fan of Portman the celebrity but I have loved her oscar winning performance in Black Swan. She, like Kidman, is one of those performers who can really really impress in the hands of the right director but also really disappoint when the director is mediocre.

Biopics are not my favorite genre, primarily because I often find the subject matter to be way more interesting than the film. And people tend to blame the actors a bit too much for the movies because they are so central but I find that most good actors show up with absolute commitment to the role. It is really the director and his understanding of the core of his movie that makes it or break it. Worst recent example is Olivier Dahan who should not be allowed to make biopics anymore. His success with La Vie en Rose was 100% due to Marion Cotillard's overwhelming performance. The movie around her was terrible. And the he gets Nicole Kidman to play Grace Kelly and gosh what a fiasco that ended up as. That movie had the best person for the job, impeccable production design and a director with absolutely no clue how to tease out the more interesting parts of his main protagonist. On the other end of the spectrum you have someone like Todd Haynes who understands his subject matter like Bob Dylan in such a peculiar way that the rest of us are just trying to keep up. All of that to say that it seems like Pablo Larrain has captured the essence of Jackie and that should make fir very compelling viewing.
Whether Portman wins anything for this is pointless as far as I'm concerned. Her career doesn't need to win and no one owes her anything. A win for Adams or Davis or Benning would be a far more rewarding sight in March but hard to get excited for an award given to Leo for The Revenant,

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTony T

Jackie looks like an exceptional film. Can't wait.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Alfredo Castro's acting style is quite unique and I love it, so I guess I must watch Tony Manero right away.

The final scenes of Neruda took my breath away. We have a major filmmaker here.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Eh Being really only deserved one nomination wholeheartedly anyway.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

"Not a huge fan of Portman the celebrity but I have loved her oscar winning performance in Black Swan. She, like Kidman, is one of those performers who can really really impress in the hands of the right director but also really disappoint when the director is mediocre."

I agree that Portman and Kidman are pretty terrible celebrities. Not all that likable (like say Stone or Lawrence or Moore or Streep are). They also have pretty spotty film choices but they can be AWESOME when everything lines up right.

"Ugh it's so unfair how Natalie is going to win a 2nd Oscar with ease despite having such a mediocre career before Amy and Viola can even win their 1st."

This unfair crap is bullshit. Not that it matters (*hint* it doesn't), but when you look at their careers there is not nearly the big gap you are referring to.
Portman: Nomination-worthy performances: Leon, Garden State, Closer, Black Swan & Jackie
Viola: Doubt & The Help

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

Is it serendipity that 4 of the 2010 Best Actress nominees are back in contention??

1) Portman - Black Swan/Jackie
2) Bening - The Kids Are All Right/20th Century Women
3) Kidman - Rabbit Hole/Lion
4) Williams - Blue Valentine/Manchester By The Sea

But don't completely count out Lawrence, who mighty gain traction for Passengers though I doubt it. The trailer doesn't look groundbreaking.

And....tho she was a 2010 Best Supporting Actress nominee, Amy Adams is also back for Arrival.

I'm Super intrigued and stoked to watch 20th Century Women and if Davis gets nominated and loses, it better is to Bening or Adams.

October 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBlueMoon02

Timing is all you need to win an Oscar.
If Natalie Portman sweeps everything then she's winning again, but I still can see chances for Stone and Davis. The former is the rising star in the BP frontrunner. Extremely charming/likeable and the latter has the huge weneeda2ndblackactressleadingwin narrative that shouldn't be underestimated at all. She'll campaign like there's no tomorrow, I'm sure.
A lot can still happen in 4 months.

October 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Yes being best is not everything unfortunately. Just remember Sandra Bullock won Best Actress for The Blindside. Right now I could see scenarios where Portman, Stone, Viola or Bening take the gold. Portman has the raves + biopic + screen time, Stone has the charm/likability that will be a HUGE benefit come campaign time + the raves + best picture front runner, Viola has the tremendous narrative after not winning for Help (ppl really want her to win) + the oscarssowhite issue, Bening is the likable veteran who has been working forever (similar to how Moore was) + appears to play a likable character + strong reviews + some say she is overdue and that narrative could build during the campaign.

October 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHuh

The trailer made me interested in actually wanted to see the movie. I like that the combo of an director from Chile twisting the myth of Jackie and maybe making her even more mythical

Portman looks STRONG. Reminds me of Blanchett in the Blue Jasmine trailer.

October 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

I hate it when all of these commentators are saying that Viola Davis will win because of #OscarsSoWhite and because she's black. Um no.

She's not going to win because of her skin color, she's going to win because she's the only Oscar contender who has truly been shafted of a win (The Help), is an acting legend for the amazing performances she's given over the years, has won a Tony for the role, and from the looks of the trailer will possibly give the best performance out of all the Oscar contenders.

Adams was mediocre and very one-note in The Arrival. Stone was charming and likable in La La Land, and I do think that film deserves Best Picture but that role isn't what I envision an Oscar winner to look like (I found her audition scene to not be THAT great). Portman has no narrative other than giving another generic politician biopic performance like Streep in Iron Lady. If Viola gets shafted for another caricature performance again, it would be upsetting.

But we'll see if Viola's performance is any good. I'm only worried that her role will be in the same badass vein of Annalise Keating/Amanda Waller that she's quickly becoming typecasted for.

October 9, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

I never saw Tony Manero, but I was equally scarred by POST MORTEM. So much so that I didn't intend to see NO a year later but only did so because I accidentally walked into the wrong theatre at a film festival and then loved it and then it went on to be an Oscar nominee.

October 10, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

It seems like there's this notion that historically a great actor/actress would give one acclaimed performance after the other when actually they could have anywhere from four to six movies between acclaimed performances. Actors and actresses who had better records than that were the exceptions. And narratives and being 'overdue' don't alway count for as much as people think. The way I see it Viola Davis, Natalie Portman, and Annette Bening have the best chances of winning.

Emma Stone is a reliable performer; I can't come up with a performance of her's I haven't enjoyed. But at the same time she's never wowed me. Perhaps it's the roles she's taken but she's never given a single performance I'd consider Award Worthy. (It's weird looking at her history of noms and realizing she has 1 Oscar nod and 2 GG nods. Upcoming starlets have landed nods for less than The Help and won for less than Birdman. As well-liked as she is, as consistent as her reviews have been, it's just strange.) I'm not so sure she has great odds. Of getting a nod, sure, but winning seems like a long-shot to me.

Natalie Portman has a solid career so I don't see another nod and possible win as some outrageous unfair thing. Leon, Heat, Beautiful Girls, Cold Mountain, Garden State, Closer, Paris je t'aime, Black Swan, Jane Got a Gun, A Tale of Love and Darkness. It's weird when you consider the roles she's turned down (Macbeth, The Horse Whisperer, Gravity (due to pregnancy), Doubt, Lolita, The Ice Storm), the roles she wanted but was turned down for due to age (Almost Famous, Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet) and the roles she was attached to but the projects never got off the ground (an adaptation of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a war/romance biopic about Robert Capa and Gerda Taro during the Spanish civil war, etc) but she's been pretty deliberate with her choices. (For example she rejected The Ice Storm and Lolita because she felt like she was sexualized in Leon and wasn't prepared for the response she got from reviewers and fans. Thus Where The Heart is and Anywhere but Here.) Her personal life comes first and she seems to choose projects based on who she gets to work with. Directing seems to have had a huge affect on her though and it feels like she's entering a new phase.

I do like the idea of her not winning the Oscar. I'd be perfectly happy with her spitting out a Closer or Black Swan or Jackie every couple of years and just racking up nods. I don't know why every treats that as though it isn't respectable.

October 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSam

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