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As ‘Jackie’ Crashes the Oscar Party, Venice’s Kingmaker Status Is Confirmed

When it comes to the tricky business of monitoring Oscar-season hype, the Venice Film Festival doesn’t get talked about quite as its fall festival counterparts Telluride and Toronto, or even its European sister Cannes — largely because most of the journalists whose chief job it is to monitor Oscar season don’t attend.

After all, it’s far away, it clashes with those aforementioned North American fests, and its program is heavy on the kind of hard-art world cinema that many Academy members will never hear of, let alone see. This year’s Golden Lion winner was “The Woman Who Left,” a four-hour, black-and-white drama of ethics and revenge from Filipino iconoclast Lav Diaz — a rewarding challenge, but not exactly the definition of an Oscar heavyweight. (Though some ironic tweets I posted immediately after the Venice awards ceremony were taken a little too literally by media outlets in the Philippines. Patawarin mo ako, ladies and gentlemen.)

Yet in its cool, unfazed Italian way, Venice has grown into an unveiling ground for future awards-season heavyweights. The last two Best Picture Oscar winners, “Spotlight” and “Birdman,” were both first seen on the Lido and immediately anointed as serious contenders; “The Hurt Locker” premiered there a few years before, though it went on to play a longer game. “Gravity,” “Philomena,” “Black Swan,” “Atonement,” “Michael Clayton,” “The Queen,” Golden Lion winner “Brokeback Mountain” — all were Best Picture nominees, all Venice coups. So even if Hollywood journos can’t make the trip, they keenly await word from across the Atlantic.

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This year’s Venice edition — a fine one, incidentally, marked by artistic successes from all across the commercial spectrum — looks to leave its watermark on the 2016 awards season through two films. The first was obvious: Damien Chazelle’s ravishing “La La Land,” already comprehensively discussed, kicked off the festival on a note of dizzy excitement, asserting itself as a likely Best Picture player within minutes of its premiere and maintaining Venice’s unusual track record for choosing opening films actually worth a damn. (“Atonement,” “Black Swan,” “Gravity,” “Birdman,” “La La Land”… Cannes would kill for that strike rate.) And on Saturday, Emma Stone began her own trophy trail by winning best actress from Sam Mendes’ jury, beating out some stiff competition.

Among that competition? Fellow American Natalie Portman, whose own path to the Oscar podium six years ago started with an electrifying Lido debut for “Black Swan.” (Unlike Stone, she wasn’t honored by the Venice jury, losing out to Greek first-timer Ariane Labed — but that’s all water under the Bridge of Sighs now.) The years since Darren Aronofsky’s art-genre hit haven’t been the richest of Portman’s career as an actor, but “Jackie,” in which she startlingly plays former First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, is about to change all that.

I reviewedJackie,” the first English-language effort by dynamite Chilean director Pablo Larraín, for Variety in Venice, so I won’t go into an extended rehash of my thoughts here. In short, the film is astonishing: a hard, provocative, jaggedly structured rewiring of conventional prestige biopic tropes, examining its eponymous icon in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination, but not once succumbing to sentimental hand-wringing or hagiography. Those who thrilled to the formal invention and tough political inquiry of “Post Mortem,” “The Club” or the Oscar-nominated “No” will be relieved to hear it’s still every inch a Larraín film, albeit headlined by a star turn of such mannered, disciplined daring in Portman that she earns a claim on it, too. Biopics can often feel like a safe route to acclaim for actors, but this feels like the riskiest work of her career.

This is not a unique opinion, of course. Reviews out of Venice were rapturous across the board, and Noah Oppenheim’s rigorously intelligent screenplay was deservedly rewarded by Mendes’ jury. The heavily French-funded film entered Venice without a U.S. distributor, but as the lights went up on its first press screening on Wednesday last week — which met with robust applause and an unreported scattering of dimwit boos, as befits its unorthodox approach — domestic distribution was clearly a question of when rather than if.

The first name to surface in the discussions was Fox Searchlight, the most obvious candidate, since they had a hand in developing “Jackie” years ago, when Aronofsky was set to direct with then-wife Rachel Weisz in the lead. (Aronofsky has remained on board as a producer, now reunited with the actress he previously directed to Oscar glory. It’s a funny old business.) While other eager bidders were in the running, including Amazon and Netflix, last night the news we were expecting finally dropped: With “Jackie” continuing to wow critics in Toronto, Searchlight made it official, and will release the film in the heart of awards season Dec. 9.

That’s good news for “Jackie,” of course, and good news for Searchlight, an outfit that probably needs another major title to work with this season, with their expensive Sundance investment “The Birth of a Nation” still an unstable property in light of director-star Nate Parker’s troubling personal history.

But a word of caution before you go declaring “Jackie” any kind of locked-down frontrunner on the basis of reviews and campaign clout alone. This is not a burnished, surefire, Academy-tailored historical biopic in any sense, which is precisely why it is to be treasured. Larraín, Oppenheim and Portman are not here to preserve the Camelot mythos in amber but to challenge it, with moral and intellectual ambiguity, with spiritual questioning, with emotional and physical violence. Any nostalgic boomer voters who just want a Kennedy fix may be surprised by the film’s distance and cool temperature; those who booed at that first press screening clearly were.

With that caveat in place, however, it’s still hard to imagine Portman not leading the film’s awards campaign and securing a third Oscar nomination in the process. Once a prodigious child of the industry, she’s now admired by peers and elders alike for her limelight-shunning diligence and seriousness of craft. Even viewers who are left cold by the film are likely to be impressed by the deep-dish work she does in it, from her attentive, near-transformative vocal work to her seamless transitions between visceral devastation and guarded hauteur. It’s the kind of turn that could even net her a second statuette, though with a surfeit of formidable names in the mix, from Viola Davis to Annette Bening to Ruth Negga to Isabelle Huppert, the “Emma vs. Natalie” headlines currently coming out of Toronto feel hasty.

If Searchlight’s savvy and Portman’s radiance can coax more cautious voters past the film’s thornier aspects, “Jackie” could well be an across-the-board player. Many in the Academy’s discerning director’s branch could spring for Larraín’s refined, razor-edged work here; a nod for Oppenheim’s many-faceted original screenplay feels even likelier. (His previous writing credits are “Allegiant” and “The Maze Runner.” Talk about upping your game.) Portman’s work is aided by a quality cadre of true supporting performances, with Peter Sarsgaard’s terse, touching and conflicted Bobby Kennedy perhaps the likeliest to register.

The film’s pristine craft work could well find recognition, too, from the textured, meticulously composed cinematography for Jacques Audiard regular Stéphane Fontaine to Sebastián Sepúlveda’s editing, which artfully zigzags between time frames and psychological states. But the film’s true below-the-line star is 29-year-old British avant-garde composer Mica Levi, whose highly innovative and very prominent score supplements the film’s swinging moods with piercing strings, military-style percussion and delicate woodwind notes. Levi composed the most singularly mesmerizing film score of recent years for Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” though needless to say, she wasn’t on the radar of the Academy’s frequently conservative, cliquey music branch. Here’s hoping some delayed recognition for her is but one happy outcome of Fox Searchlight’s wise purchase.

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