Larrain: Spencer (2021)
Pablo Larrain’s latest biographical study is easily his best – a return to the heady days of his earlier career. Kristen Stewart plays Diana Spencer, but this is a very different treatment from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana, even though both films take place in the later stages of their subject’s life. Whereas Diana is largely naturalistic, Spencer is more of a psychospatial drama, revolving around Diana’s alienation at a Windsor Christmas weekend at Sandringham House, long after her marriage to Charles has turned sour. The opening credits describe it as a “fable from a true tragedy,” and the film follows suit, fusing the palace with the recesses of Diana’s consciousness for what often plays as a Gothic horror film more than a regular period piece.
Larrain also opens with a spatial scheme that pervades the entire film – almost inscrutable objects suspended in the midst of massive voids. The first of these is a sign in what turns out to be the Sandringham kitchens, warning staff that “they can always hear you,” although it takes a later, closer shot to confirm that these are indeed the words. The next is a massive scarecrow cast adrift in the middle of a foggy field, which becomes a wayfaring point for Diana when she gets lost en route to the palace, despite the fact it’s next door to Park House, where she spent her early life. She recognises the scarecrow immediately, and stops her car to look at it, in the first of many sequences in which she traverses these massive voids to come face to face with their distant tiny points of focus as surrogates for her own crushing alienation.
This immediately casts an existential haze over the film, as Larrain suffuses his mise-en-scenes with a mistiness that abstracts any sense of time and space. In keeping with the sign in the kitchen, Diana is well aware that “in this house, everyone can hear everything,” and so restricts her conversations with her children and her beloved Dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) to short staccato bursts, with inflections deliberate enough to remain beneath the level of detection. This prescient silence constellates around the piercing gazes of the Windsors, and Elizabeth in particular, whose sadistic stare is especially chilling after the humanising portraits of The Queen and The Crown. Under her purview, the film seeps into body horror, both ideationally, as Diana has visions of eating and coughing up her pearls, and more psychologically, by inducing a recurrence of her bulimia, the great shame of the royal family.
While Diana spends the first act (and the majority of the film) alone, the Windsors are even more surveillant in their absence, or when speaking through their subordinates. On the face of it, this surveillance is designed to stave off the greater surveillance of the paparazzi, who are supposedly stationed all around the castle, although we never see one of them. Yet the royals quickly exceed the paparazzi, moulding, shaping and quantifying Diana’s body in ever more egregious and humiliating ways. The moment she arrives at Sandringham, she’s instructed to sit on a scale so she can measure her weight gain over the Christmas weekend, a supposed tradition that doesn’t have a whiff of residual whimsy once Major Alistair Gregory, played by Timothy Spall, gets Diana in place. All her oufits are curated, she requires three hours to dress, and her curtains are stapled after she makes the mistake of changing with them open, since the paparazzi might see her: “their lenses are terribly powerful these days.”
It quickly becomes clear, then, that the paparazzi are, in their own way, a fantasy of the royal family – a mere pretext for them to sadistically punish Diana for daring to be different. While she interacts very little with Charles, who is in the midst of an affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles (another piercing gaze, glimpsed fleetingly after the Christmas Day service), they do have a recurring conversation about whether William and Harry should be permitted to shoot pheasants. Diana is against it and Charles responds, from the opposite end of a geometrically apportioned billiard table, by reminding her: “You have to be able to make your body do things that you hate, for the good of the country – for the people, because they don’t want us to be people.” It’s a pithy insight, but it belies the way in which everything the royal family invoke against Diana is simply a pretext for their own sadistic regulation of her. In this vision, the paparazzi are ultimately the instrument of the Windsors – almost an invention of the Windsors, since we never see them – who are thereby responsible for Diana’s death as well.
Spencer thus captures how much Diana’s distinctive body language was a bracing against scrutiny and surveillance – from the external media, to be sure, but even more from the ways she was mediated amongst and within the royal family. These two worlds meet at several key points in the film, starting with the servants watching a television broadcast of the Christmas Day service in the basement, and commenting disparagingly that Diana has worn the wrong dress. When we first hear Elizabeth speak it’s as part of a similar broadcast, and so when she finally speaks in the world of the film, it’s suffused with that same remote distance. In that sense, Spencer is far more cynical than The Crown, which essentially presented Elizabeth as a casualty of photographic and televisual media rather than (as occurs here) a figure who used television to her advantage, much as she folds the paparazzi into the Windsors’ sadistic urges.
Partly because she is both hyper-scrutinised by and alienated from contemporary media, Stewart’s Diana often feels suspended between past and present, at least once she arrives at Sandringham, where, as she explains to her sons, past and present are always the same anyway. While she’s nearly always alone, the palace doesn’t exactly feel abandoned or isolated, but more like an unspoken bubble has been drawn to relegate her to the same eerie ahistorical space we see in The Shining, which the first act of Spencer often recalls. Stewart’s Diana is a ghost, drifting between Sandringham and Park House, her old home, which is now abandoned, and is so close that it feels more like a decrepit wing of Sandringham itself, especially since it’s all part of the same Windsor estate. The bright costumes of Sandringham and the barred-up shutters of Park House often recall Stewart’s alternations in Personal Shopper, where she played a young woman trying to summon her deceased twin from beyond the grave. Here, she collapses both those roles into one, as Diana becomes doubled in turn, identifying herself as her own ghost when local police catch her trying to access Park House.
At every juncture, then, Diana is on the cusp of being swallowed whole, buried alive in the Gothic edifice of the royal family, as Larrain envisages an alternative future to her car accident – descending into desuetude in the distant reaches of Sandringham. It’s a fate worse than execution, or perhaps just a modern form of execution, and yet it transforms Diana into a Gothic heroine as well, driven by a restless spatial curiosity that leads her to find her surrogate in the ghost of Anne Boleyn, who also retreated here when she was out of favour with Henry VIII. Steeled by Anne’s example, Diana leans in to Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant jazz score, which cuts against the massive geometrical configurations we see in the opening drone shots of the palace, but also undermines the mathematical-classical stabs that escalate throughout the more ceremonial sequences, like ghosts of Michael Nyman’s scores for Peter Greenaway.
This longing for a line of flight climaxes around a moment of immobility, as Diana finds herself unable to come downstairs for the main Christmas dinner. Not even the souffle, her personal favourite, is enough to tempt her from her bedroom, until she compensates by running across the darkness to Park House, and then ascending the staircase to her old bedroom, where she lapses into a fantasy montage sequence in which she sheds her bodily constrictions to dance riotously around the palace. In a moment of pure proprioceptive joy, she relishes all the ways her body spins, moves and exists in space, as Larrain intercuts memories of her childhood, and we return abruptly to the darkness of Park House, where she defiantly rips off her pearls, the drivers of body horror and bulimia, and flings them (rather than herself) down the stairs.
Attributing this vision to Anne Boleyn, Diana embarks upon a two-pronged attack to free herself from the Windsors the next morning. Each of these attacks also involve a moment in which Larrain dramatises her immobility, and then sets her free to continue this plosive propulsion of that dream sequence. In the first, she takes a morning drive to a local beach with her Dresser, Maggie. This is the most expansive space in the film, and so renders Diana the most vulnerable and precarious, which in turns brings her and Maggie to their most sober assessment of royal surveillance so far: “How do they know?” “They know everything.” Reflecting that “the more time that passes, the fewer words they use to describe you,” Diana ponders whether she is destined to end up being “Diana the Insane” when she eventually retreats as far back into the annals of history as Elizabeth the Virgin or William the Conqueror.
Yet at this very moment Maggie makes an unexpected declaration of love to Diana, breaking through her role as Royal Dresser, and the heteronormative dicta of the Windsors, in an effort to shock her out of her stupor – to turn her from “Diana the Insane” to “Diana the Shocked,” since “what you need is love, shocks and laughter.” It works, propelling the two women out into what initially felt like the limit space of the film, a fusion of sky, sea and sand that is so complete, on the great tidal plains, they they seem to be inhabiting the horizon itself. For a second time, Diana leans into the freewheeling trajectories of her dream, except that she is now exploring them in real time and space, and with someone by her side to propel her along.
This scene takes on an extra kick in the wake of Stewart coming out, and transitions us to the last stage in Diana’s attack. Once again, we start with an image of extreme immobility, returning to Sandringham through the vantage point of the Queen’s binoculars, the apotheosis of surveillant maleficence. Rather than breaking free immediately, Diana also absorbs all her forced stasis by taking on the role of both scarecrow and pheasant – scarecrow, by freezing in the same strange posture, and pheasant, by positioning herself directly in the line of fire of the shooters, where she demands that Charles return her sons. Suspending herself in space in the most precarious way possible, she accelerates and exhausts all the scopic constrictions of the royal gaze, while clarifying, in a new way, that she has always been this dwarfed object at the limit point of her own sightlines, strange scarecrow-pheasant.
Once she’s recovered her sons, the momentum of the dream sequence resumes, again in real space, but in the grounds of Sandringham, and then inside, where they pack up their luggage, put on casual clothes, sit on the weighing-machine to destroy it with their combined mass, and zoom back into the countryside. Right before her epiphany, Diana confesses that she “loved things that are middle-class, unfashionable,” and that middle-of-the-road sensibility returns here, as Greenwood’s dissonant score gives way to Mike + the Mechanics’ “All I Need is a Miracle”. As they speed pass the original scarecrow, it’s wearing Diana’s clothes, as if to suggest that Diana is now both scarecrow and liberated from the scarecrow, still poised precariously in space while simultaneously leaning into the liberation of this sublime joyride.
It’s a beautiful image of Diana’s capacity to weather the royal gaze while embracing her own true self, a literal embrace of her middlebrow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road sensibility as she cruises down the centre of one lane after another. And in the middle of those roads, Larrain glimpses another future for Diana, one where she is still flowing, still charged with enough momentum to avoid the Parisian car crash and end up where Spencer does – pulling into a KFC drive-through, giving the name “Spencer” when she takes her order, and eating it by London Bridge, relaxing into a world where her regal relatability might flourish and thrive.
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