The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Gagosian Britannia St, London WC1, Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011 13 January - 18 February
In anticipation of Hirst's major show at Tate Modern in April, 11 galleries around the world are displaying Hirst's famous spot paintings. This London exhibition boasts more than 100 pieces, ranging from a tiny semi circle to a 40ft-wide epic with 1,600 coloured discs.

Comedy

Soho Theatre, London W1, Jimmy Carr - Gagging Order: Work in Progress 13 January - 14 January
The witty 8 Out Of 10 Cats host is practising material for his upcoming tour. In his own words, it might be good, might be shit.

Dance

Peacock Theatre, London WC2, Nierka 14 January - 16 January
This multidisciplinary performance brings together music, video, puppetry, lighting and dance to highlight the journey from lost youth to enlightenment. The show's creator is British/Mexican artist Tupac Martir, who is best known for working on fashion and music campaigns for the likes of Vivienne Westwood and MTV.

Theatre

The Pit Barbican Centre, London EC2 17, Translunar Paradise January - 21 January
Presented in association with London International Mime Festival, Translunar Paradise is a story about life, death and enduring love as an elderly man struggles to come to terms with the death of his wife. This superb piece of mask and movement theatre was a hit at last year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Music

Royal Opera House, London WC2, La Traviata 17 January
Richard Eyre's production of Verdi's tragic love story returns to the Royal Opera House with Renée Fleming as Violetta and Joseph Calleja as Alfredo. The opera recounts the tensions the doomed lovers encounter as they break social conventions. Antonio Pappano, Music Director at the ROH, conducts.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era