It is clear to anyone who's followed my reviewing through more than one Oscar season, I'm sure, that I have very little use for biopics. But anything can be done right, and there's not much more right you can get than Jackie. On paper, at least, the film looks like a craven attempt to win Natalie Portman her second Academy Award by offering her the chance to impersonate an extremely famous person, former First Lady of the United States Jacqueline Kennedy. In practice, that is entirely not what it is, which shouldn't have been a surprise. After all, Jackie cheats a bit, first by being a Chilean-French-American co-production, which takes us one long step away from the icy calculations of Hollywood. Second, Jackie was directed by Pablo Larraín, the Chilean filmmaker who has rather confidently at this point established himself as one of the greatest internationally prominent South American directors, and even specifically for his fact-based stories about the lives of people involved in politics; his other 2016 biopic was about famed Communist politician and poet Pablo Neruda, and his biggest release in the United States prior to now was 2012's historically-anchored satire No.

I hope it's not just anglophone provincialism that leads me to wonder out loud if Jackie might just be his best film. It's certainly great, whatever boxes we otherwise might feel compelled to put around it. Stylistically, dramatically, thematically, it's one of 2016's most interesting, adventurous, and just plain best films, the most thorough revivification of the biopic form in a good long while. Beginning with the fact that it hews to a tendency I've noticed for a long time now: the most interesting true-life stories in the movies are almost always those which eschew synoptic "cradle to grave", or at least "cradle to rejuvenated success in late middle age" character arcs. Instead, the best of these films tend to focus on just one event, sliced out and explored in greater detail (it's not a hard and fast rule. The superlative Yankee Doodle Dandy covers most of George M. Cohan's 64 years on Earth; the somberly awful The Imitation Game only looks in depth at about a year and a half of Alan Turing's life, and his attempt to solve a single major problem. But in general, it holds as a principle). In Jackie's case, the subject is just a few days, no more than a week, during which time Jackie Kennedy and the United States of America both started the process of coping with the fact that President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson, in the handful of moments where we see him) had just been assassinated.

Structurally, it's a simple enough thing: in last days of November, 1963, Jackie welcomes a Life reporter (Billy Crudup) to her home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, to present her story about Jack Kennedy's life and death (the actual interview with Life's Theodore H. White occurred on 29 November, seven days after the assassination and four after the funeral). The bulk of the film takes the form of her flashbacks, primarily to the hours after the assassination and the difficult task of deciding as a solitary grieving widow what should happen during the funeral procession of a wildly popular head of state, though a few extra memories slip through, as they will, to Jackie's tenure as First Lady and her efforts to restore historic furniture and other appointments to the White House, which she hoped to make something of a museum for the American people.

And that already prods at the thing which makes Jackie so much more than the story of A Famous Person's Trauma: this is a film about the subjective experience of being one specific human in one specific moment, attempting to fashion some kind of narrative for oneself to help tame a horrible event. It's not really a film about Jackie, but a film about Jackie's memories, Jackie's guilt, Jackie's faith, and, whenever she can manage it, Jackie's attempt to force her version of history onto the record books (a task at which she was successful: the undying notion of the JFK administration as the American Camelot, perhaps the last really potent bit of presidential mythmaking in the history of the United States, was almost entirely a result of her inserting that myth into the White interview). The film exists in layers, with Jackie, mostly recovered from the immediate shock of her loss, constantly recalling the intense feelings of pain and confusion she experienced just a week earlier, transitioning between states of relative control and absolute anguish.

It's all an enormous exercise in stretching out purely subjective storytelling across 99 exhaustingly intense but otherwise immaculately-paced minutes, with incredibly precise editing by Sebastián Sepúlveda to clearly demarcate the connections between the relatively objective present of 29 November and the inchoate sense of disarray the protagonist recalls from that vantage point. The craftsmanship is quite excellent: beyond the chronological manipulations of the editing, we must contend with the excellent, intelligent framing that Larraín and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine bring to bear on the subject, emphasising close-ups in shallow focus set like little gems against unnaturally angular wide shots from slightly too high that mercilessly place Jackie in big empty spaces, to twist and suffer in her silent, self-contained way. And then there's the straightforward but crazily effective mixture of pastel-washed footage in the interview scenes, with more fully-colored memories: it's a simple metaphor for the intensity of feeling of the post-assassination trauma, but simplicity in this case is an extraordinary boon. Not to mention that the grainy 16mm stock that the film was shot on adds both a certain level of period authenticity - not realism, something the highly subjective film has no interest in pursuing, but a sense of acute '60s-ness that presents itself without showy bragging about how perfectly this captures the look of the time, or all that. Perhaps best of all is Mica Levi's incredible score, not quite up to the bravura experiments of her Under the Skin music, but nevertheless bold and intelligent, remaining far enough away from comfortably melodic boilerplate that it never gives the listener a chance to relax, but still able to evoke emotions directly and richly.

And then there's the parts where the filmmaking does show off a bit, creating fake stock footage of Jackie giving news crews tours of the White House, and while this is distinctly gratuitous, it does have the merit of adding to Jackie a reminder that this wasn't just the story of one woman's loss, but the story of a national tragedy; and that Jackie Kennedy wasn't just a sad widow, but a canny media manipulator for whom strategising ways to control the narrative around Jack's presidency and its violent end was among other things a good way to keep her mind occupied during an enormously difficult time. Above everything else, Jackie is about grieving; but it is about grieving as a national event as well as a personal process, and the historical ramifications of grieving. It's a tricky balance, one that looks effortless in Noah Oppenheim's excellent screenplay, and which is given terrific expression by the filmmakers.

Nuances and finely-tuned moments abound: Jackie wandering aimlessly in the presidential bedroom, playing the title song from the musical Camelot and not paying attention as it grows tinnier as she moves from room to room, is a particularly beautiful little moment rich with both personal insight into the mind of a woman desperately trying to enforce normalcy, and symbolic weight as "Camelot" reveals itself to be a hollow shell. Much of the nuance resides in Portman's outstanding performance, the best work of her career by an exaggerated margin: she's playing three different versions of one character (the 1962 press tours; the shell-shocked grieving survivor; the steel-willed subject of the Life interviewer), or possibly two different characters ("actual" Jackie and the deliberately constructed Jackie she wishes to remember), and while doing that is aping the mannerisms and breathy speaking voice of one of the 20th Century's most iconic human beings. As far as degree of difficulty, I can't say that 2016 has presented any actor with a more daunting movie role, and Portman completely aces it (aided by some choice editing that allows her to make the most dramatic shifts in energy a little more cleanly). Her Jackie is on the one hand a desperate, feeling person: her inconsistency and lashing rage in planning the funeral is great, but greater still is her gutted expression of spiritual terror when discussing with her priest (John Hurt) her concern that no loving God would perpetrate this world. On the other hand, she's a flinty politician of the first order in her interview with the journalist, openly daring him to report the facts she doesn't want reported, ruthlessly exploiting her own grief to force him into submission. The film's Jackie is a brilliant character, brilliantly played; I have no clue how closely she hews to the real Kennedy, and I frankly don't care. As an expression of raw grief, of public figures trying desperately to have private lives, and as an emblem of United States lore, this Jackie could never be improved by larding her up with facts.

The film swirling around Portman's Jackie is so rigorously tied to her that it hardly seems worth mentioning the bits that don't work, since they're almost all incidental. The generally uninteresting side characters are a pity, though, especially Peter Sarsgaard's satisfactory performance as a man that no reasonable person would ever mistake for Robert F. Kennedy. And while the film's discontinuities are admirable in that they make this film first and foremost about Jackie's fevered headspace, there's no denying that parts of it are a little bit confusing, particularly those elements which attempt to drag in Lyndon B. Johnson (a surprisingly convincing John Carroll Lynch) and Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant) to be mildly tut-tutted at for unclear reasons. But whatever. Let the film have its missteps - they are minor, if not indeed quite trivial. Jackie is an outright triumph in all the important ways: challenging, intelligent, impossibly well-crafted, emotionally nourishing even as the whole thing feels like a non-stop chain of sucker punches. Cinematic grief has rarely been this piercing and this sustained, and the movie containing that grief is a privilege to behold.