“Make as little noise as possible. They can hear you. ” This is not the hook from a horror film, but the text displayed above the stoves in the kitchen of Sandringham House, the holiday home of the British Royal Family.
It is on this empty kitchen that opens Spencer. Director Pablo Larrain’s latest biopic, previewed at the Venice Film Festival, revisits a very short period in the life of Princess Diana – as it had done Jackie, released in 2017, which imagined the life of Jackie Kennedy right after the assassination of her husband. The action of Spencer, it takes place over three days during Christmas 1991, the period that corresponds to the implosion of the marriage between Diana and Prince Charles.
We discover the heroine (played by Kristen Stewart) in the English countryside, lost at the wheel of her car, and already shaken at the idea of having to lock herself up with her in-laws for a weekend. Three days during which the young woman will be infantilized to the extreme; her outfits chosen without consulting her, her curtains sewn to prevent her from opening them, the house closing in on her like a trap. Even your weight is monitored: family members must be weighed on arrival and departure, and it is fashionable to have gained weight to prove that you have had a good time – a curious tradition under all circumstances. , but particularly distressing for someone who, like Diana at this time, suffers from eating disorders. From the first minutes, the tension is palpable, the settings cold, the atmosphere disturbing. And the feeling of horror will only get worse.
If Pablo Larrain would already dust off the codes of the historical biopic with Jackie, the director goes even further here, by introducing a dark and sometimes supernatural palette to his drama. Strange appearances, threatening sets, psychological tension pushed to the maximum, and even a few drops of blood: to better underline the progressive alienation of the princess, Pablo Larrain summons many codes from fairy tales but also from horror cinema, and to few things close, Spencer could almost be considered a horror film.
From the foreground, and this warning intended for the cooks of the house, the Crown is presented as the threat of the film, the monster who could, by dint of coldness and restrictions, consume Diana. Chaptered over three days during which the situation becomes more and more tense, the film contains numerous tracking shots in the felted corridors of the palace, which Diana paces up and down and across.
We necessarily think of The Shining, and, like the Overlook Hotel which was gradually taking possession of Jack Torrance’s mind, Sandringham appears as a hostile house, which gradually pushes the princess to lose her grip with reality.
In Spencer, any item of clothing, jewelry or piece of furniture can turn into a cage or instrument of violence. There’s the gardener’s wire cutters, the string of pearls that suffocate her, or the curtains, which expose her to the paparazzi, and which will eventually be sewn by the house staff – while the windows provided vital breath for Diana in this house. stifling. But also the stairs, a recurring motif in the film, which raises the threat of a well-known incident in the life of the princess: in January 1982, pregnant with William, she really threw herself down the stairs of Sandringham. If the register of the strange lends itself so well to the account of Diana’s life, it is because, after all, the horror of her daily life has already been widely documented.
As its title suggests, the Diana of Spencer spends much of the film trying to get back to his old identity, as if royalty is an alien that needs to be purged at all costs. Despising the outfits that were imposed on her for the weekend, she instead gives all her attention to an old coat from her father. As the unease reaches its climax, the princess ends up running away in the middle of dinner to go to her childhood home located not far away, condemned and abandoned for years.
In superb night shots, brilliantly lit by the director of photography Claire Mathon, Diana thus traverses immense misty fields which would perfectly find their place in a horror film. As for the old house she visits, it has everything of a haunted house, with its door devoured by ivy, its rats and its staircase which creaks and threatens to collapse under the weight of its feet. Without counting the supernatural elements which invite themselves in this “Fable based on a real tragedy” (as a text announces at the beginning of the film).
Le timing de Spencer could have harmed her: after all, audiences still have in mind the image of the princess freshly embodied by Emma Corrin in The Crown, just over a year ago. But, with this aesthetic bias, the film departs radically from the Netflix series. Kristen Stewart’s Diana shares little with Emma Corrin’s. In Spencer, already older and disillusioned, the princess often says «fuck» (his first line in the film: «Where the fuck am I?»). She is sharp, malicious, and takes pleasure in denigrating the conventions that one tries to impose on her. When an employee of the house teaches her yet another lesson in good behavior in her bedroom, she ends the conversation with a magnificent “Leave me, I wish to masturbate”.
Spencer also knows that the public knows by heart the facial expressions of the princess, and plays them skillfully. In the opening scenes, Diana, lost in the countryside, stops on a motorway rest area to ask for directions. Kristen Stewart then interprets it in an almost caricatural way: excessively mannerisms, doe eyes, tilted head and accentuated accent. The performance is purposely overdone, reminding us that Diana, too, plays a role when in public.
In the intimate scenes that the princess shares with her sons, on the other hand, the actress is much more natural, and the further the film goes, the more she sheds her mannerism, as if to make Diana more and more real. Unlike the Peter Morgan series, Spencer also offers her heroine a more positive trajectory. Behind the horror, we find in fact a heartbreaking tale of emancipation, which starts in the mist and ends in the light – and, to make the symbolism even more powerful, at the wheel of a car. After the trials, the princess finally manages to escape from the castle.