DOUBLE FEATURE: SPENCER | BENEDETTA
Director: Pablo Larraín
Writers: Steven Knight
Starring: Kirsten Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, Jack Farthing
Genre: Psychological drama
Released in 2021
Usually nothing interests me less than the royal family. Except from maybe watching media about the royal family. So how then, does the fantastical Princess Diana movie end up being probably my favourite film of 2021 that I've seen in the year of 2021? Well director Pablo Larraín made a great film back in 2016 with similar subject with Jackie, which I thought was a highlight of that year as well. It's been a while since I've seen that film, a mediation on managing grief in the public eye, so perhaps Larraín is reusing some tricks, but I thought this was excellent front to back.
Spencer is pretty distinctly anti-royal, and that's kind of refreshing! It's not a biopic, but rather "historical fiction" in that it depicts a fictional Christmas with the royals wherein Diana reaches her breaking point. This film strips back the glamour of the royal lifestyle and instead focuses in on how claustrophobic Diana feels within it. The fairy-tale is long over. Despite the large empty halls of the castles and open fields surrounding it, you really feel her desperation in the form of an oppressive atmosphere. This explores this fictional version of Diana's pain in a cutting way, of course helped by an outstanding performance from Kirsten Stewart who absolutely disappears into this role. If there was a general adjective to apply to this film, it'd probably be "suffocating", and while often anxiety-inducing, it's amazing because of this purposeful tone.
Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood delivers another great score for his résumé, the chaotic nature captures the general mood of the film as a 'dream that's long since turned into a nightmare' in a fantastic fashion. Still there's moments of beauty that shine through in the score for the uplifting moments. There's points where it feels as if you're being allowed up for air, as Diana plays games with her children or spends some time alone with her personal dresser.
I love the washed out visuals of the film as well, lots of moments where the framing and shot composition is just so well though out. The dreamy nature of the film as well as nostalgic setting is suited well to this visual style and it certainly makes for eye candy when combined with impressive locations and amazing costumes (Diana is killing the fashion game here - though obviously that's missing the point).
This movie is so cool. It's like a nightmare psychological horror that uses misty '90s nostalgia to mask itself as unassuming, only to be relentlessly agitative in a quiet sort of way that needs to be experienced. What a show-stopper of a film and an essential pick for the best of 2021!
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writers: Steven Knight
Starring: Virginie Efira, Daphne Patakia, Charlotte Rampling, Lambert Wilson
Genre: Biographical drama
Released in 2021
Paul Verhoeven was always one of the coolest directors to hit the mainstream. After some successful Dutch films, the director went to Hollywood, creating successful blockbuster films that also had great satirical edge. Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are all great films that work as dumb blockbusters and smart satire simultaneously. He also made one of the most puzzlingly over the top Hollywood dramas with the $40 million Showgirls, which despite tepid critical and box-office reception, garnered a huge audience on home video. His movies had all you'd want to cause controversy: sex, graphic violence and cutting satire (that would often go over the heads of the audience and critics). While his Hollywood days are long in the past, Verhoeven had a wonderful late-career resurgence with the French language film Elle in 2016 which proved he could still pull off a lot of his old tricks while operating with a more understated tollbox than his big-budget Hollywood efforts. Now we have another late-career effort with the "nunsploitation" film Benedetta.
I think a lot of people seem to be under the impression that Benedetta's main intention is to shock. With its "lesbian nuns" premise, as well as the general criticism of Catholicism and its patriarchal foundation. It's not particularly subtle, but it didn't need to be and it's to misjudge the tone of the film to come away thinking that it was only intended for shock value or as a direct provocation to the church.
But Benedetta does succeed in being "shocking" to a degree. There's some brutal scenes and Verhoeven hasn't decided with age to direct the sex scenes in his film to be any less to the point and overly horny. This film is so removed from the mainstream compared to his erotic thriller Basic Instinct for example, that it's not particularly surprising to see explicit sex in an art-house adjacent film that played at Cannes.
There's a understated balancing act going on here that Verhoeven manages well, combining the silliness and seriousness with conviction, of course helped by a set of great performances at the core of the film. Virginie Efira leads the way with a compelling and fairly understated lead performance, as a Nun "chosen by Jesus". Charlotte Rampling makes her presence hugely memorable as the highlight amongst the supporting cast while Lambert Wilson appropriately plays into the satirical edges of the film with a fun scenery chewing performance as a pseudo-villain.
Generally the film feels very well produced, with good costumes, make-up and sets. Though the cinematography is sometimes a bit bland. It's hit and miss in that regard, there's stretches of the film that are appropriately sweeping, but sometimes the digital look just feels flat. I do appreciate that Verhoeven loves to linger on violence though, it adds edge and corny appeal to see heads lopped off and blood really spill. Nothing ground-breaking, but it really helps the satire hit home and the understated comic nature of the film comes to life in these moments.
It's great to have another really worthwhile Paul Verhoeven film that feels distinctly his. He's in his eighties and still making these sort of silly and provocative films that manage to have a worthwhile message at the core. It lives up to his run of Hollywood blockbusters, as despite a lower budget its intentions are similarly bold and twisted. His style still feels distinct in today's varied film landscape and not at all out of date. This is for sure a highlight of the year.