Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín is skilled at creating immersive yet boundless depictions of enigmatic female characters that thrum with robust and fierce intensity. Larraín’s films overflow with a visceral and poignant intensity that leaps past notions of representation, idealization, and distance in a vehement espousal of embodiment and boundless expression.
Pablo Larrain Reinvents Princess Diana On Film
Larraín has directed luridly stunning films such as Ema, which follows a dancer who navigates tumult and discord after the disintegration of a familial dynamic. Since then, Larraín has undertaken the task of reinventing the biopic, with films such as Jackie which is a profoundly immersive portraiture of Jackie Kennedy in the searing aftermath of Kennedy’s death. Most recently, Larraín has brought us Spencer, a fantastical tale that forgoes the tantalizing yet endlessly speculative task of depicting or understanding Princess Diana and instead delves headfirst into her psyche.
Larraín breathes life into the discourse surrounding Princess Diana by creating fable-driven renditions of a life that has previously been crystallized in glamor, media frenzy, endless speculation, and hullabaloo. Larraín’s film is as stilted, bizarre, and occasionally deranged as it is a cinematically deft undertaking of fearless filmmaking that unravels and transcends our abashed mythical renderings of a woman who lived as persona. Defiantly abandoning the discourse surrounding her to create a hallucinatory yet intimate rendition of the people’s princess, the film effectively counteracts the myth of Diana with a fable that shatters in its excursive unfurlings of a mind that is splintering in the throes of despair and isolation.
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Kristen Stewart As Princess Diana In Spencer
Harkening back to the dark roots of the fairytale, the film reaches past notions of glorification and works to depict Diana’s emotive interiority. Spencer follows Diana over a three-day period as she visits the Sandringham Estate to celebrate Christmas with the royal family. The film’s lens is grainy and fogged, almost polaroid-esque at times, and the camera rises into sharp, intense focus whenever Diana, played with captivation and conviction by Kristen Stewart, is in the frame. The Diana we see in Spencer appears to us in undulating shades of emotion and an intensified voracity; Stewart masters the coquettish and charismatic ardor of Diana’s gaze while adding in moments of a fiery yet blase grief.
Stewart’s performance is nascent, raw, and jarring: This is Diana peeled back to the jugular, oscillating seamlessly between insight, paranoia, and grief. We see Diana moving through scenes in dislocated disorientation; her interactions are heightened and thrum with a kind of uneasy peculiarity and an intensified and arduous speculative disenchantment. In one scene, she traipses through the lush yet desolate panorama of the English countryside toward a scarecrow that serves as a remnant of her childhood and wonders, “How could I get lost in a place where I used to play?”
This dissolution of place points to an abject dislocation that soon leads us into the capsizing expressions and experiences of an interiority facing its brink amid wider systems that demand regimentation.
At one point in the film, Diana says to her sons, the princes, “There is no future. The past and the present are the same thing.” This moment works to foreshadow a nullified future and a fraught past, depicting anguished interiority, subconscious expression, and the non-linear saturations of institutions with a deeply haunted and troubled past.
A scene that depicts dinner with the family fragments into a nightmarish scene in which Diana begins eating her pearl necklace, one oversized incandescent globe at a time. In another, she wanders through Sandringham with Anne Boleyn’s ghost in tow.
On the one hand, this is abject horror exemplified, pulling together phantoms, ghosts, and crucifixes in the blurring dimensions of hallucinatory monstrosity, disgust, and a jarring perception inhibited by unease and a barely digested distaste.
Fable And Female Interiority In Spencer
The effectiveness of the biopic fable lies in the fact that it creates a perhaps hyperbolic and fantastical extrapolation of a public figure; however, the conditions of interiority that we envisage and imbibe cannot be separated from the social and political conditions that birth them.
The subliminal interiority of this film is deliberately symbolic and incongruous; by portraying Diana’s vulnerability and her psyche, Larraín both resists understanding her and creates another fable, effectively resisting reason with emotion, linearity with fragmentation, and myth with fable. In this instance, the biopic fable works to remind us of the specific type of exaltation that women like her are subject to, the kind that both iconizes and dehumanizes, and renders invisible, in the same breath.
Female Interiority As Surrealism On Film
Depictions of female interiority through surreal means have become increasingly pervasive, particularly as society becomes increasingly aware of the extent to which these experiences are invalidated and diminished. So long as the female emotive lexicon can be dismissed as subjective, depiction beyond reason is necessary, even essential, a form of resistance and deconstruction.
Lindsay Zoladz, writing about Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” points to the weaponization of memory and the embodiment of an aesthetic that allows a woman’s fluid depiction of a woman’s “subjective emotional experience” by consciously creating an excessively long and unpolished rendition of a memory unfurled from the confines of a system that demands coherence and legitimacy of narrative over experience.
These mediums prevail over and counter dominant narratives that would rather depict women as symbols or as one-dimensional silhouettes, and in doing so, work to invalidate the frustrations of lived yet invisible female experience.
Films such as Melancholia, Personal Shopper (also starring Kristen Stewart), and shows like Brand New Cherry Flavor often descend into a vortex of pained fervor and iridescent darkness barely tempered by the quotidian rhythms of the protagonists and an interior tumult and pain almost often expressed through elements of horror, abjection, and surrealism.
In some ways, these modalities of expression work to subvert the origins of surrealism as a movement that, in its origins, often distorted the female form and flattened the complexity of the feminine psyche through a lens that was intent on a creating reductionist or overtly eroticized outline rather than investing itself into the throes of full-fledged representation and depiction.
The films that seek to actualize these surreal dreamscapes of female interiority are a highly necessary and exploratory advent into exploration and destigmatization; however, in representing the female psyche on-screen and in art, we must question how these interiorities can be adequately expressed given that the lenses themselves are fraught tied into patriarchal systems.
If the purpose of the surreal depictions of interiority is to liberate and undo the female psyche, then these depictions should, by virtue of their intent, meld and move between various dimensionalities. Spencer works to depict interiority through both intensified subconscious hallucinatory visions as well as through nuanced moments in which we can envisage Diana’s vulnerabilities, often beyond notions of Diana as icon and towards a woman fraying under the teeming pressures of isolation and marital rejection.
I think I gained more from Spencer in retrospect than during the actual viewing of the film, partially because Diana’s suffering is not easy to witness, and partially because I was a bit frustrated to see another woman’s interiority reduced to vulnerability, instability, and an eating disorder that borders on glamorization: As “A fable from a true tragedy,” the film, by its very nature, takes on a self-proclaimed format that wrestles with darkness and debilitation.
Can Female Interiority On Film Rise Above Trauma? Spencer’s Princess Diana and Maggie
Perhaps the broader notions surrounding interiority and surrealism were the greater concerns in my discontent: Shouldn’t female depictions of interiority make room for astonishment as well as trauma and suffering?
Melancholia certainly has moments of rapture; additionally, male-centric representations of interiority that embody elements of the surreal such as The Fisher King, Birdman, and Being John Malkovich, though tinged with mental illness and toxic masculinity in terms of their bravado and egotistical fanfare do make room for joy or even an unrelenting egotistical form of humor.
Certainly, Spencer has moments of breakage and real authenticity too; perhaps the most authentic moment in the film arises when Maggie (Sally Hawkins), Diana’s dresser, declares her love for Diana, capitulating in an isolated moment of despairing authenticity. Perhaps there is no astonishment in the circumstances that Spencer explores, and perhaps Diana’s interiorities in the film are horrific rather than corporeal, although the greater, compelling question is regarding the nature of the biopic fable itself. In boldly unmaking female public figures that society would rather elevate or denigrate, Larraín is emphatic in his refusal to abide by normative reductions of these women; however, can we watch a fable about Diana without hailing Diana herself? Does the film unmake Diana as motif and humanize her or does it create another motif in turn?
Certainly, the film is a testament to her abject and intense suffering and the exercise does unmake the chipped spectacular of Diana’s legacy. The fable counters by elevating past reality and immersing in the emotive world, while still reinforcing the sheer difficulty of the conditions that women like Diana often face. In exploring this interiority and thus making the invisible visible, Spencer creates both a social commentary and a much-needed immersion into a psyche that floundered under unimaginable conditions.
Diana is told by Sally Hawkins’ character Maggie, “Fight them. You are your own weapon.”
These words are blistering in their insight: The woman that Spencer unmakes doesn’t fight from a frontier, she is the very means of the conflict itself. In exploring the invisible dimensions of the highly visible, Larraín demolishes our mythicisms and injects their hollowness with a depiction that knows no reason.
Even as the film creates a cloudform of chaos that leaves us with an prismatic understanding, it reminds us that before we idealized Diana, she was a weapon in a war that was as tangible as it was invisible.
SPENCER is now available to watch on Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other streaming services.
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Featured image: Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in SPENCER (C) NEON