How Spencer and Marie Antoinette Subvert Tradition to Understand Their Royals

Movies Features Sofia Coppola
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How <i>Spencer</i> and <i>Marie Antoinette</i> Subvert Tradition to Understand Their Royals

15 years ago, Marie Antoinette was released and received divisive reviews that either praised or dragged (it was met with boos when it premiered at Cannes Film Festival) Sofia Coppola’s style-over-substance approach to telling the title queen’s story, even though this specific choice is what turned it into a refreshing biopic. Pablo Larraín’s newest film, Spencer, the second installment of his biopic trilogy—the first of which tracked a few days in the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 2016’s Jackie—takes a similar approach in using fiction to tell the story of a misunderstood woman married to a man in the line of succession for the throne.

“I wanted to make a personal story and not a big epic historical biopic,” Coppola told the New York Times. And that she did. As opposed to depicting the conditions of the French state, Coppola chose to solely track Marie’s life within the confines of the Palace of Versailles. In fact, she barely wandered outside of these parameters; the film doesn’t depict and sparsely mentions the French Revolution, and Coppola spares us from seeing Marie’s death by guillotine.

In Coppola’s 2006 masterpiece, Kirsten Dunst’s Valley Girl-accented titular queen is young, naïve and unprepared for what’s to come in her new role as the wife of the soon-to-be-king of France, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). From the moment Marie crosses the border from her native Austria into her new home of France, she’s forced to sacrifice her privacy and leave her girlhood behind in exchange for growing up at an accelerated rate and being valued mainly for her womb. Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is a frivolous woman—not unlike the real Antoinette—who is scrutinized by the gossipy and judgmental court of Versailles. Thus, Marie fills her time socializing and living luxuriously through extensive retail therapy and extravagant parties, all the while being completely out of touch with the people of France and the issues arising outside the walls of her estate.

Marie Antoinette is an almost fully fictionalized account of Marie’s life, with some true facts sprinkled throughout. Unconcerned with making a typical historically accurate biopic, Coppola used the formula of a biographical film to investigate the complicated lives of young women, something we’ve seen her do throughout her career with The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Somewhere and The Bling Ring.

Mixing true events drawn from Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey with anachronistic elements such as purposefully placed Converse high-tops found in a decadent shopping montage and a post-punk and New Wave soundtrack including the likes of The Strokes and New Order, Coppola used a fresh contemporary lens to effectively tell the story of a young woman who existed in a world where every bit of her existence was made public and criticized. She elevated her signature dreamy visuals to a new level, crafting a feast of pastel eye candy mirroring the young queen’s coming-of-age as it unfolded before our eyes. Operating between two eras separated by over 200 years of history, Coppola paints a humanized portrait of Marie that empathizes with the ill-fated woman while never glorifying her, simply looking beyond the surface to explore the life of a girl who might not have been so different from us after all.

The same could be said about Spencer. Opening with a title card reading, “a fable from a true tragedy,” Spencer doesn’t set out to tell Diana’s life story. In fact, it barely even fits the mold of what a biopic is. Instead, like Marie Antoinette, it uses the biopic framework as a vehicle to portray the life of an important and beloved woman in history through events that might not have happened in real life. Taking place over the course of an excruciating Christmas weekend in 1991, Spencer sees Diana, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart, at the top of her game) faced with a decision that will impact the fate of her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and her future.

Diana is isolated with no one to trust, as the royal family’s behavior towards her is chilly and their stares are as sharp as knives. Even though their presence throughout the film is sparse, it remains effective in contributing to the film’s dark atmosphere. Feeling estranged from the royals, save for her children William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddy Spry), the former of which is old enough to understand that something is wrong with his mother and tries to help her pull herself together, she finds solace with members of the royal staff (although most are allegedly spying on her for the family)—namely Maggie (Sally Hawkins), her Royal Dresser, and Darren McGrady (Sean Harris), the royal head chef. Despite the brief moments in which these companions offer her kindness and advice, Diana’s pain can’t be remedied.

Great lengths are taken to control Diana, from weighing her upon the moment she arrives at the estate to dismissing her only true ally, Maggie. After being lectured for leaving the curtains open in her bedroom, she finds that they have been sewn together in order to keep people, especially the sneaky and gossip-hungry paparazzi, from looking in, but also to keep her from looking beyond. Living under the microscope, she has nowhere to turn when dealing with the pressure of the Crown and the public’s perception of her.

At times, Spencer feels like a horror film, using tight shots and Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score to create an eerie atmosphere that captures Diana’s emotional rollercoaster ride over the painfully long three days. Stewart’s Diana is haunted, quite literally, as these few days at the queen’s estate cause her to spiral. The placement on her bedside of a biography of Anne Boleyn, the Queen of England who was beheaded by her husband King Henry VIII for adultery, causes Diana to begin seeing Anne’s ghost—and even envision herself as Anne at certain moments. In one surreal scene, Diana imagines ripping off a pearl necklace she knows Charles gifted both her and his longtime lover Camilla Parker Bowles (Emma Darwall-Smith). The pearls fall into a bowl of soup during Christmas Eve dinner and she begins to eat spoonfuls, crunching on the pearls.

What separates Larraín’s portrayal of Diana from the countless other biopics she has received over the years is that he succeeds at making her relatable through his focus on her emotional state. The film delicately deals with Diana’s eating disorder, with scenes depicting her binge eating and forcing herself to throw up in the bathroom, but never feels glamorized or gratuitous. Despite craving normalcy, to live her life out of the spotlight, she is forced to follow the rules of society and present herself in a manner that aligns with the traditions of the Crown.

Like Coppola’s decision to remain within the walls of Versailles, Larraín takes a similar approach by remaining almost exclusively within the suffocating confines of Sandringham Estate, only venturing out to nearby locations such as Diana’s childhood home or the city of London at the end. Unlike the fairytale visuals and contemporary elements of Marie Antoinette, Claire Mathon’s foggy and lush cinematography and Spencer’s use of surrealism and horror perfectly underscore Diana’s feeling of alienation and personal struggles—yet both films manage to capture the loneliness of their subjects. While many aspects of the film are true to life, such as the etiquette required around the Queen and Diana’s struggle with bulimia, Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight build on public information to craft their narrative and take us deep inside Diana’s head in the same way that Coppola did with Marie Antoinette. Both Coppola and Larraín treat their subjects with a humanity that makes them relatable, all the while never ignoring the fact that these women led privileged lives from the moment they were born.

Marie Antoinette and Spencer are tales centered on troubled women of royal standing who lived most of their lives in the public eye and had no control over their trajectories. Both Coppola and Larraín work beyond the typical biopic treatment, interweaving fictionalized narratives with true events from the lives of their misunderstood subjects in order to highlight their emotional and mental states—and to show that underneath everything, these two women were simply human.

Jihane Bousfiha is an entertainment writer based in Florida. When she’s not watching or writing about TV and films, you can find her tweeting about all-things pop culture on Twitter_.