Pablo Larraín’s Princess Diana stunner Spencer opens with a tagline letting you know that for the next two hours, reality will be slightly suspended and oh, by the way, prepare for emotional devastation: This is “a fable from a true tragedy.” And in another alternate universe, it’s also a … tragicomedy? Allow us to allow the director himself to explain.
At Sunday’s Vulture Festival, Larraín led his own personal filmmaking masterclass — with the crucial caveat that directing can’t be taught, only learned, so keep those Oscar dreams small — walking Vulture film critic Alison Willmore through five films that informed his auteurist vision: Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985), Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), and John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Rewatching Kubrick’s faithful portrayal of the most surreal parts of the pomp and circumstance of an 18th-century duel allowed Larraín to “understand how the wheels of history and tradition can trap people,” and how cinema at its best can showcase this form of absurdity without making fun of the people who hold it up. And so while there’s unlimited fodder to roast in the royal family’s commitment to silly, sometimes harmful tradition (see: forcing Christmas guests at the queen’s Sandringham Estate to weigh themselves upon arrival and departure because King Edward VII thought it was a bit of fun to prove everyone stuffed themselves), Larraín ultimately felt it would’ve done a disservice to Diana’s suffering to go for the low-hanging fruit.
“There was a version of Spencer that’s more funny,” the director explained. “If we pushed it it could have turned absurd and close to being a satire. It could’ve been great to see, but jokes could also have been a distraction.” He continued, “We’re working with a tragic character who’s going through trauma. I wanted to avoid [comedy] and stay in her perspective.” Which is not to say he wouldn’t be front and center for a lower-brow retelling: “I’m sure Peter Sellers could do it and that could be incredible.” (The Diana the Musical that the people deserve!)
To prepare Kristen Stewart for the heavy lifting his version of events would require of her, Larraín also had her watch Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (“one of the greatest performances of all time” by his measure) and study the way the actress portrays a person in the throes of a mental-health crisis whose morality has been compromised. It’s “the best example of how empathy can be challenged,” he says. “Do we love her? Yes. Why? For reasons that are hard to explain. The indescribable is beautiful and motivates me to do my job.” He added, “This film is a big, big act of freedom.” Spencer, he’s realized after four years dedicated to making it, now represents some of his most freeing work, too.
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