By Christopher Sharrett.
A portrait of female disintegration to a point that [the film] has been termed a horror film, an extreme designation, but not wholly inaccurate.”
I saw Spencer at its opening, but I’ve waited to comment on it until I could view it carefully on Blu-ray, such is my respect for its director, Pablo Larrain, whose work in his native Chile, particularly Tony Manero and Post Mortem, rank, for me, among the most distinguished films of the last twenty years. After the esteemed Patricio Guzman (and perhaps Costa-Gavras’s Missing), Larrain’s renderings of the shattering 1973 coup that brought the fascist Pinochet regime to power in Chile (with U.S. assistance) are the most intelligent ever produced on the topic, and No and The Club are among a very distinguished group of meditations on the coup’s aftermath. He has a particular talent for creating a suffocating, poisoned (yet plausible, “realistic”) image of the world at large, doubtless why he has been hired abroad to make films for other concerns.
Spencer is the second English-language film he has been contracted to direct, the first being Jackie (2016), both about upper-class women. Jackie is about Jacqueline Kennedy’s grim hours after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy; Spencer follows Diana Spencer, “Princess Di,” (Kristen Stewart) through the ordeal of the Christmas holidays with her authoritarian, adulterous husband, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), and the rest of the royal family into which she has married. The two films might be called bird-in-a-gilded-cage narratives; why should we care about the emotional woes of two very rich women? First, they are about women, rich yes, but Larrain makes their plights fairly universal, in part because they are women, and have secondary position in a male-dominated society, money or no. Robin Wood once remarked that a victim of patriarchal law is the patriarch himself. That is true of these two films, except we are asked to focus on the wife, the person one might presume is the protected hearth-keeper of the male. Jackie presents some ironies about male rule: the male (JFK) is assassinated, perhaps because of judgments disliked by the rest of the male order. His wife dutifully creates his myth (Camelot) to guarantee his immortality. A good deal of lying goes on; Jackie tells a journalist that she doesn’t smoke even as she puffs on a cigarette. Her position in the realm of her husband gives her privileges, but her era starts to fade.
Spencer differs in Larrain’s view of the female and the Law. Diana is part of an old (dating to the 15th century) aristocratic family familiar with the ways of the court, yet she is utterly alien to its rituals and demands. Larrain calls the film “a fable from a true tragedy.” A fable is a fiction, often a whimsical one (Aesop) meant to teach a lesson. The film seems less a fable than a series of chilling, sometimes horrifying, vignettes, with the loosest narrative thread, aimed at those familiar with Diana and her story. And what is being taught? In retrospect, Diana could be seen as learning a very bitter lesson, and learned too late. Unlike Jackie Kennedy, Diana Spencer is hardly interested in advancing the myth of her husband and the royals; on the contrary, the point of her story is the awfulness, the inhumanity of the royals, no matter their gentility. What we finally get is a portrait of female disintegration (Diana even comments on her coming-apart), to a point that this has been termed a horror film, an extreme designation, but not wholly inaccurate. The film even has its Gothic signifiers, but the most crucial feature of the genre—at the textual and the design levels—is the sense of utter oppression, of a human being forced to do what they dislike. At last, the film is a portrayal of the terrors felt by Diana. The crucial moment is Prince Charles telling Diana, “You have to make your body do things you hate.” This has to be so, to the extent that “there are two of you, two of me, two of father—the real person and the one the public sees.” This must be so, he says, “for the good of the people, of the country.” So the people must be served fantasies that promote authoritarian rule (even though the royal family has a mainly ceremonial function, and what it symbolizes still has a concrete and oppressive role).
I think I need to insert early a personal note. I have never understood the American fascination with the royals, if the US is supposed to be a democracy that a couple of hundred years ago did away with all concepts of kingship. That was never true of course; the country is always looking for its own royals, and occasionally finds them (the Kennedys), while the nation remains a very stratified society. When Diana married Charles in 1981, the media chattered about the “fairy tale wedding” of the two. Only a child would conceive of such a thing, and indeed by the next decade the fairy tale was over. At that point there were “ugly rumors” about adultery and the rapid dissolution of the marriage. In 1997 she was dead, killed in a terrible crash, sitting in the back seat of a car driven by a drunk; seated with her was the heir to a department store. She was already known as the “peoples’ princess,” for her warm manner and ceaseless charity work, including visiting children’s hospitals, and former battlefields littered with landmines. On word of her untimely death, the royal residences became virtually covered with flowers. But was the charity a kind of compensation, a narcotic distracting her from her circumstances and her mental illness (including bulimia)? Spencer seems to think so; Diana appreciates the personal maid who tries to console her, but Diana insists that soon “you’ll be in the world in some pub laughing, and I’ll be in a field filled full of fucking landmines.”
Larrain, as his subtitle suggests, gives us a fable (a dark one) from a tragedy. This is so not only because of Diana’s end, but each day of her life with the royals, and perhaps days before this life. We know this from the establishing sequence.
The film opens with an extended wide shot, a long take of an empty green expanse, frozen in winter. In the distance is a stand of trees, also in their winter mode. A barren tree branch intrudes at the top of the frame. There is a touch of the Gothic here and elsewhere, enhanced by a perpetual overcast gloom. A truck convoy moves into the frame, traveling from right to left. There is a cut that puts us inside a dark kitchen utility closet, the kitchen just beyond—this is a peculiar moment, yet it encapsulates the film: this is Diana, trapped in a dark space (her mind?), the world just beyond.
Was the charity a kind of compensation, a narcotic distracting her from her circumstances and her mental illness (including bulimia)? Spencer seems to think so.”
Then there is a cut that puts us on the surface of the road, a dead pheasant in front of us (pheasants become important), the convoy approaching. The trucks are painted green, suggesting military transport. Soldiers are leaving their trucks, machine guns strapped across their backs; they carry long gray stenciled boxes, two men to a box. We might assume that they contain guns. The trucks have arrived in the courtyard of a grand country estate, Sandringham House, owned by Queen Elizabeth II (the film is actually shot in Germany). In a vast kitchen, the soldiers are replaced by men in the white clothes of chefs; they open the boxes, which contain not arms but fruit and vegetables, lobsters, meat, all attractively arranged. A man named Darren (Sean Harris), who might be the head chef, barks “Brigade, once more into the breach!”
We might be happy that we are dealing with food, not guns. But the food looks like a beautiful still life, not something to eat. And soldiers, not grocers, bring it. This is less about the security of the royals than the militarization of each aspect of life, and British (and all) royalty as the foundational emblem of authority and control.
The film cuts back to Diana, lost on the road in her open-top Porsche. She was born in Park House, very close to where she is, yet she consults a map. Even when she stops at a restaurant, The Duch Café (named after her nickname “duchess”) she is disoriented. Here, the diminutive Kristen Stewart’s performance becomes notable. She has studied Diana (I won’t say she is “channeling” her), and captures her mannerisms, from the accent, her breathy voice and body language; she tilts her head down and to one side, her body to the opposite. Sometimes the performance is on the edge of caricature, but after all this is a work of the grotesque—and the performance is not misconceived. One forgets that the actor is slight. Stewart does away with her screen persona—ordinarily, one sees deep, slightly bruised lines under her eyes, suggesting worry, but these are erased by makeup to complete the image, her hair replicating Diana’s.
The film insists that death is its key theme. We know Diana’s end, of course, yet the film wants to comment on the entire world in front of us as the death trap Diana sees. Still stranded on the road, she is met by the head chef, Darren (Sean Harris), concerned with her absence. He is a friend, but warns her that Her Majesty won’t be amused at her tardiness. Diana replies to Darren: “Will they kill me, do you think?” Those who think Diana was killed by a conspiracy (and those who don’t) might think the line too clever. But Diana sees a scarecrow on the crest of a faraway hill. Suddenly Diana recognizes things (“Now I know where I am”). The scarecrow—a horror film trapping—was created by her when she was a child; it is called “Bertie,” after Edward VII, one of the less effectual prewar monarchs. He thought his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II insane, but could do nothing to stop WWI. Diana runs up to the scarecrow to remove a weathered jacket that once belonged to her father. As she possesses the phallus temporarily, it ends up on a headless mannequin in her bedroom at Sandringham; she addresses the dummy, which gives her no more response than her in-laws.
She is greeted at the house by Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), “the Queen Mother’s equerry,” once an officer in the Black Watch. This makes sense. He resembles a mortician to such an extent he might have his origins in The Addams Family. But he isn’t a joke. He is the single greatest reminder of the world of death encompassing Diana. Upon meeting him—and taking a moment to tenderly greet her two little sons, Harry and William—she runs down an endless corridor to a marble bathroom, to puke in a Georgian toilet, introducing her illness. At breakfast, her husband Charles reminds her of all the hard work (even by the chickens who laid the eggs) that went into the meal, and asks her to be so kind as not to “regurgitate it all into a lavatory bowl before the church bells ring.” Bulimia can be understood at this point simply as the need to gag, and puke up this sinister setting. Later, she tries to eat the gorgeous food placed on lavish trays in the pantry, able for once to relax. Gregory appears, looking even more the undertaker in a tuxedo, asking “still hungry, ma’am?” The frightened, surprised Diana chokes, a child caught doing something naughty. Diana cannot eat in the formal circumstances of the royal dining hall—who could? The Queen glares at Diana; the waiters attend the royal family with the precision of the soldiers who brought the food. The eating of the food turns the family into automatons, or waxworks. Everyone seems attentive to how the Queen spoons her foul soup—yet are they conscience of anything? The satisfying of hunger is entirely secondary to maintaining a precise sense of ritual. The contradiction recalls Bunuel, but without his humor (the association of toilets with dining tables). There is also the Kubrick of Eyes Wide Shut and Full Metal Jacket, with everything frozen in time in unwholesome spaces, people turned to somnambulists (Last Year at Marienbad also shows up), the interiors shot as unyielding rectangles, the walls gold, or painted red with gold trim—regal, yet deathly—the camera pushing slowly forward.
Major Gregory, the Renfield to Charles’s Dracula, is always around. When Diana sits by herself on stone steps at the vast estate, trying to engage a pheasant, Gregory appears over her shoulder. He sits near her, and thinking he is offering friendly comfort, tells her of his days fighting in Ireland, “in an alley, off Falls Road,” where a fellow soldier tells him of his wild horse which he could never tame. Then a bullet hits him, “it came out his nose” so says Gregory, who “hugged him to me, for protection!” He smiles on the last line, then goes into a long disquisition about one’s oath, as he says he questioned himself on “who we soldiers die for,” a stupid man who thinks he stumbled on a monumental insight. Diana says she “wants no one die for me,” and hopes that “the wild horse stayed free,” making Gregory glower.
As Diana inspects her quarters, she comments on the ages the rooms have seen, with “the dead skin of every person,” including Queen Victoria’s, making up the dust. The main emblem of death is Anne Boleyn, the murdered (by decapitation) wife (one of many) of Henry VIII, that very indulgent and self-absorbed—and murderous—monarch. A huge portrait of Henry looms over the dining room, and someone, very likely Major Gregory, has placed a book about Anne on Diana’s bed. As Diana’s misery increases, she imagines Anne in her presence. Diana reads verse attributed to Anne; “O Death, rock me asleep,” death being the only hope for peace of mind. Anne was condemned to death for adultery, but the adulterer was her husband. The parallel of course is with Charles and his long-term lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles. While this was blatantly obvious, media focus was on Diana’s affairs, some began, it seems, out of desperation, a narcotic treating her hopeless situation with the royals.
The further association with the murder of Anne Boleyn is in the pearl necklace given Diana by Charles, identical, she says, to one he gave to Camilla. Each vagina is like the next. The necklace reminds Diana, it seems, of her own forthcoming beheading; she tugs at the necklace, ultimately breaking it apart, the pearls falling in the pea soup in front of her—or is it soup? It’s unhealthy green aspect might be that of paint, mucus, or some other noxious substance. Diana spoons the pearls out of the soup and dutifully consumes them. We might recall that a pearl necklace, commonly used by the male for seduction, is a metaphor for the male ejaculate, the “string of pearls” of gross humor. The moment of the soup is one of the more pronounced hallucinations suffered by Diana: the necklace remains.
Diana has a constant need to vomit out the present world. The signature poster of the film shows a woman, obviously Diana, bending over in a strapless white gown, its huge white skirt filling up much of the frame. The film recontextualizes the image: she is in the bathroom, on her knees, her head propped on the toilet seat. It is a brutal but perceptive reduction of Diana. The extravagance of her formal gown—and all the formalities attached to it—are juxtaposed with her misery, and the agonizing illness with which she might, at some level of consciousness, regain control of her own body from the royals and all others. One knows, of course, that bulimia is no way out.
The screenplay by Steven Knight often takes the film into the absurd, or nonsense verse of a dark complexion. Darren, the head chef, instructs his staff: “pitter patter, soft words, fingers out of saucers, you sons and you daughters of bitches, and we blanch the nettles or they will sting us.” But Darren’s orders may not be so absurd when we recognize that he is a military man, the meal he is making the “breech” into which he leads his “brigade.” His kitchen again recalls Kubrick, its severe lines recalling the barracks of Full Metal Jacket. At times, the control of Diana is almost molecular. A maid observes Diana on television, snidely remarking that she wears “Boxing Day red instead of Christmas morning church.” One might say, “who cares?” and the response would be wholly reasonable. Does the British public know such distinctions? Even if they do, such niceties have always been about detracting from one’s humanity, and that of a whole society if the public acquiesces.
Becoming fertilized with princes is what Diana has endured, as she must also show up for the family portrait, the Queen in the center, another gallery of waxworks.”
When Diana is in conversation with her body servant Maggie (Sally Hawkins), who tries to convince Diana that she can conquer them all with her poise and beauty (at one point, this conversation is so hushed, out of need for secrecy, it is almost inaudible—I needed the subtitles on the Blu-ray). One of Diana’s remarks is “they fill your eggs with princes and ride away.” At first the remark, which doesn’t connect with Maggie’s, is odd, but it makes perfect sense of course. Becoming fertilized with princes is what Diana has endured, as she must also show up for the family portrait, the Queen in the center, another gallery of waxworks.
Diana has a compulsion to visit her parental home at Park House, on the Sandringham property (the Spencer family, although quite old, is entirely subsidiary to the House of Windsor). On her first try, she is stopped by the flashlights of the police and Gregory’s men (“they’re better than the police,” says Charles). The bright light illuminates the barbed wire and fencing that stop Diana, the fence for a moment looking like concrete, as if she were at the Berlin Wall, or one of the death camps. The idea of “private property” takes on the entirety of its sinister meaning. On her second attempt, she wears the billowing backless gown, covered by a topcoat, with Wellington boots—once again there is juxtaposition. The working class and the military are suggested as supporting the aristocracy, suggesting also Diana’s confused allegiance. In any case, the longing for “home” seems dominant. She has cajoled a pair of wire cutters from Darren (with which she cuts her arm, introducing the pathology of cutting as another irrational form of resistance, perfectly sensible in patriarchal culture, just as “hysteria” is rational in this context), and therefore penetrates the deadly fence. What she finds is something akin to the House of Usher, the place boarded up (as she was told it would be), the floors cracking open with every step. She grabs a rotting bannister—we truly are in a Corman-Poe film. At the top of the stairs, she encounters one of her hallucinations of Anne Boleyn, who implores her to live, and free of Charles. The purpose of home, in Diana’s mind, becomes a bit obvious; she has visions of her girlhood, playing with a hula-hoop and rocking horse, her friends nearby. They construct Bertie, the grotesque scarecrow, using her father’s jacket (but John Spencer, who appears in the vision, seems not a grotesque but a benevolent parent). Diana has been switching back and forth from Anne Boleyn to herself, making a bit too clear that these visions have a basis in the reality of her past. The decaying house suggests she has been trading one manifestation of male rule for another. In a poignant moment, Diana sits alone on the rotting stairway, crying. She has lost not only her girlhood innocence, but all control of her life, and has difficulty now separating fact from nightmare.
Children and Escape
Spencer offers Diana as loving mother; her two young sons, William and Harry, are her only solace. In a Sandringham bedroom, they comfort one another. She tries to explain the order of thing to her boys by reviewing English tenses: “You know you have past, present, future? Here past and present are the same—no future.”
Late at night, she gets the rambunctious boys (who complain of all the blankets, supplied by Gregory rather than raise the heat—the idea of suffocation prevails) out of bed to play a game of “Yes Sir! No Sir!”, Diana taking on the role of Major Gregory: “I want the truth from you soldier!” The main question is “what is your ideal Christmas, soldier?!” William responds “eating with your hands!” Harry says “Not showing up!” Diana drops the military game to respond: “That would need a miracle.”
She is appalled to learn that Charles and his factotums are teaching the boys to learn the use of a shotgun, then to shoot pheasants. When she learns this from Charles in the billiard room, where she gets the doppelganger lecture she grips the rail of the billiard table in panic and anger, fearing her sons are being taught the male art of killing. When the day arrives for the hunt, the shooting is unfortunately minimal, not serving the drama very well. One anticipates the hunting scene from Le regle du jeu (1939), with its unfettered cruelty, the gunshots like cannon fire, anticipating the inferno of World War II; the film is truly Renoir’s image of society on the edge of a volcano.
At this moment, Diana appears in front of the guns, posing with her father’s tattered jacket, retrieved from Bertie. The point of the scarecrow has become clear; she is willing to become (and indeed became, in the public consciousness) a propitiatory, sacrificial victim. But the hunt ends. Diana takes off with her boys; the pop song “All I Need is a Miracle,” by Mike and the Mechanics, appears on the soundtrack. Diana gets the miracle she thought necessary—but it is an ineffectual, discouraging one. They end up at a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food stand (which might be more edible in Britain—I would never think of partaking while visiting). She and the boys get junk food and bad rock music, when the age of rock is over. But they are away from Major Gregory and the horror house of the royals. Diana looks off, from a spot near the Thames. The film ends.
One can’t help but think of what comes after: Diana is killed, her boys grow up, Harry marries a woman of color, which, according to Meghan Markle’s account, sparks controversy (“what color will the baby be?”) with the royals (denied by them). Prince Charles married Camilla Parker-Bowles, so Jane Seymour followed Anne Boleyn after all, Anne dead in her grave—but Diana got statues.
The whole story, as I recount it, is wholly unnerving, but Larrain and Knight have reminded us of an essential lesson. But do women need to hear it? It is needed, I think, in an age of juvenilia, as fascism is again the great tempter of democracy, as the rights of women are chipped away. In making this film, Larrain has concluded, I think, that western society is dead and embalmed.
An appreciation of the grotesque aspect of Spencer is enhanced by attention to the extraordinary score by Jonny Greenwood, who brings to his film scores the best of the avant-garde impulse (he is a student of Penderecki) of the group Radiohead. Greenwood makes use of a jazz ensemble, a baroque string quartet, a solo double bass used Mingus-style, a Bach organ, solo piano, and harpsichords. The jazz group foregrounds a trumpet, plangent, but also reminding us of the instrument’s martial origins(for this, see Krin Gabbard’s history of the instrument, Hotter Than That), relevant here in the trumpet’s’s integration into the film’s text, and the oppression Diana faces, especially that of Major Gregory. The effect of the score is to demarcate various eras—the medieval, the baroque, romanticism, modernism. At each instance, the dominant use of an instrument is combined with an opposite effect: the pipe organ and harpsichord signal Bach, but turn us toward The Phantom of the Opera, and Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum. Greenwood allows “counterpoint,” as one ensemble answers another, although Greenwood allows the ensembles to crash together, creating cacophony, underscoring the lunacy encountered by Diana during her morbid fantasies (the Ann Boleyn visions). The cacophony “answers” the various periods cited by the instrumentation; there is no grace to the baroque, no reason under modernity, at least if we keep in mind such ongoing monstrosities as kingship, which encompass all.
Greenwood’s compositions have the traditional cinematic function of annotating sequences, like Diana skipping/prancing/running down corridors or pathways in gowns—including her wedding dress, with its impossible train—that became signifiers of Diana. This is clothing as costume, diminishing the human subject. This idea is complemented by the acquiescence of royalty in the game of dehumanization, the key instance of which is the image of the waxen-faced, impenetrable Queen Elizabeth II, looked at for help by an emotionally stricken Diana, as if a child beseeching a mother, only to be told that “the only portrait that matters is the one on the ten-pound note.” Diana must become acclimated to being “currency.”
Christopher Sharrett is Professor Emeritus at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor at Film International and the author of Breaking Bad (Wayne State University Press, 2021).