Kristen Stewart stars as Princess Diana in “Spencer.” Credit: Claire Mathon/STX Films
Kristen Stewart as Diana appears set for a long and possibly fruitful awards season run, but doing her performance justice required the careful eye of Claire Mathon, one of the hottest cinematographers working right now.
Larrain approached the French cinematographer after watching her Caesar Award-winning work in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Mathon told CNN. In their initial talks about “Spencer,” Mathon said the director was interested in “something much larger and (more) timeless” than Christmas with the royals: an exploration of what lies behind life-changing decisions.
“He said from the start, it’s a fairytale (turned) upside down. It is a princess who makes the choice not to be a princess anymore,” she explained. “It’s more of a deconstruction and it’s less about history.”
Up close and personal
Visually, Larrain was inspired by Kubrick, Mathon said. She and Larrain watched Kubrick’s William Thackeray adaptation “Barry Lyndon” and a sequence of “A Clockwork Orange” in preparation for “Spencer,” and they also studied period photographs. But the film would not be tied to history or biopic convention.
Larrain’s mise-en-scène “is very far from naturalism,” Mathon said. “It’s a very choreographed film, I think, where the music is important. It’s a film where we move a lot (and) we feel a lot.”
Mathon, Stewart and Larrain on set. Credit: Frederic Batier/STX
Working with 16mm film, Mathon’s camera engages in an elaborate dance with Stewart, capturing her every gesture but also the world as Diana sees it, beset with ghouls (both flesh and fantasy) and few trustworthy faces.
“It was Pablo’s idea, this very, very close proximity,” Mathon said. “It’s more than intimacy, it’s almost interiority.”
Some shots were improvised, others not, she said. The method veers toward the metatheatrical, given how paparazzi stalked the real Diana, camera in hand.
“I had never been as close to an actress with a camera. I was even scared of touching her,” Mathon said. “But I think that her interpretation played with the camera … It’s one of the subjects of the film: (Diana’s) relationship between hiding and locking herself away, while at the same time being in constant view — too seen. How she reveals herself (is) how she remains free.”
Diana faced with the press in “Spencer.” Credit: NEON
As if to drive home the film’s subjective perspective, even when not in close-up, Diana remains the focus. During one fraught dinner, Mathon captures events with such shallow depth of field as to blur Diana’s fellow royals into irrelevance. Instead our eyes are drawn to Stewart’s pained face, the soup before her and a pearl necklace (the same given to Camilla, Diana suspects) weighing like an anvil around her neck. Jonny Greenwood’s jazz-inspired score grates against the room’s stifling primness, and the film’s claustrophobia spins out into a wild fantasy, thrilling and disturbing in equal measure.
Mathon said the scene was among her favorites. “The music came even before the scene,” she explained. “The idea for this scene’s progression really comes from this sumptuous candlelit dinner with an orchestra … little by little, it harmonizes and transforms, it becomes dissonant.”
“We always run with (Diana), but the question is how to feel these looks; the tension of (royal) traditions. For me, visually (this) was a challenge.”
Dinner on Christmas Eve in Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer.” Credit: NEON
Mathon had nothing but praise for Stewart (“both very beautiful but also pretty amazing”), her director (“I had a lot of fun working with Pablo”) and also the film’s take on the princess. “I really liked the fact that there are many facets (to her), that there is something very complex in this character,” she said.
“At the end of the day, being close to (Diana) is something sincere and, ultimately, very simple.”
“Spencer” is released in cinemas November 5.
Add to Queue: The subjective lens
László Nemes’ harrowing film takes the opposite tact to Montgomery’s, in that the camera barely leaves the protagonist’s face. Nemes’ debut feature, about a Hungarian Jew in Auschwitz forced to dispose of bodies and clean the camp’s gas chambers, is shot in a boxy Academy ratio, forcing the audience to concentrate on Saul (played by Géza Röhrig). Shot in close-up and frequently in tight focus, we process events through Saul’s reaction to them, shielded to a degree from the visual horrors but not their emotional impact.
Just as film can take a subjective view of events, so can film history. Helen O’Hara’s book does a fantastic job of undoing the erasure of film’s pioneering women, reclaiming the narrative in their name. Packed with eye-opening anecdotes from the days of Old Hollywood, O’Hara makes the case for these women, marginalized by the studios and the history books, without whom we wouldn’t have cinema as we know it.