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  • Sasho Pshenko

Trapped Inside the Castle: Finding Kafka and Nausea in Spencer

Franz Kafka’s mastery of erotic, labyrinthine tension is transported into British royalty in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer. Sasho Pshenko explores the film and how its depiction of Princess Diana bears a striking resemblance to the Kafkaesque world.

Spencer Pablo Larraín Princess Diana Kristen Stewart
Illustration: The Pittsburgher / Still from Spencer (2021)

There’s a strange erotic tension pervading the entirety of Franz Kafka’s opus. All of his works, his three unfinished novels – The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and Amerika (1927) – especially, revolve around a confused, semi-individuated protagonist, trapped in a rigid, labyrinthine world that somehow seems… pleasurable. This world, composed of an infinite series of arbitrary, illogically rigid – or lax – rules seems, at first glance, like the embodiment of a totalitarian or bureaucratic nightmare. In this sense, many have written on the setting of Kafka’s works, as well as on the relationships his protagonists have with their surroundings. I, however, would like to start by pointing out that my intention isn’t to offer yet another interpretation of Kafka’s literary worlds, but to draw attention to the subliminal yet unmistakably present erotic undertone pervading them all.

This erotic undertone has almost nothing to do with the actual sexual and romantic encounters which the characters have throughout the novels, but with the mere living, breathing mechanism of the narrative itself, with the construction of the system within which the characters are forced to operate. If one were to be direct, one would say that it feels as if the world of Kafka’s novels is the elaborate, theatrical enactment of Joseph K.’s, Land Surveyor K.’s, Karl Rossmann’s, and, ultimately, Kafka’s own masochistic fetish. The immersive embodiment of a nightmarish fantasy which would, in any shape or form, be horrifying for anyone but the one who created it, the one who specifically designed it in a way that “hits all the right spots” – erotically, although not practically or realistically. Similarly to how, for example, a bondage fantasy is preferred in a sexual, consensual context, but horrifying in any other one.

In that sense, the key to Kafka’s “fantasy” is that it thrives on a constant build-up of tension – oppressive, sexual, even mortal – without a single outlet and with absolutely no release. In this erotic fantasy, there is no escalation, no culmination, no subsequent relaxation; it is restrictive and everlasting – a constant state of limbo; there are only oscillations of intensity. Interestingly, the hope – the “desire” – for release and for freedom is the main engine of the story’s superficial layer, yet underneath this, the true desire is the one for imprisonment. All the possible outlets that emerge in the characters’ journeys, all the “fake exits” which ultimately lead back to the suffocating structure – the castle or the juridical system – only serve to additionally augment the perverted pleasure derived from said imprisonment, from the subsequent disillusionment, from the additional “tightening of the bonds,” the punishment. Hence the unfinished nature of the novels – the suffering ends with freedom or death, but neither one is desired; as long as one lives, one enjoys the pleasure of one’s own suffering. The erotic tension never explodes, it only keeps building up or (seemingly) loosening, its intensity fluctuates but it, in itself, is prevalent. This charge, in conjunction with the disorienting and entrapping space and time, ultimately produces the unique, recognizable atmosphere of Kafka’s subject going through a labyrinth, or a water-slide of their own externalized libidinal – and destructive – drives. And this “water-slide” is so unique and recognizable, in fact, that one is bound to feel puzzled if they encounter something akin to it in a different context. Which is exactly what happened when I recently watched Pablo Larraín’s 2021 Spencer.

Spencer, a biographical film focusing on the late Princess Diana’s (Kristen Stewart) experiences during her life with the Royal Family, evoked some sensations which were weirdly similar to those reserved for Kafka’s world. Even before being able to pinpoint what exactly they were, I knew they had something to do with the notion of the erotic charge. And although the differences between Kafka’s and Larraín’s works are massive – even if analyzed from this point of view – there persists some correspondence, regardless of how vague or subtle, that implies a spiritual kinship between the two.

At this point, before I continue, I would like to put a disclaimer. Everything said from now on refers neither to the biographical Princess Diana, nor the real Royal Family, but exclusively to Larraín’s film and to the characters portrayed in it. The backstory of the real Diana’s life is expected to be known, and is important to understand even parts of the film which have remained unstated. However, in this analysis, they’re taken as the unsaid elements of only a fictional story. Now, back to the discussion.

What is this similarity, then? To begin with, much of it is superficial: a similarly externalized inner world of hallways, trap doors, and lurking spies. A barrage of institutional employees and officials; lawyers, cooks, barmaids, painters, musicians, butlers, royal dressers, and others, whose allegiance and sincerity is questionable. A system of rigid rules and regulations, and an almost metaphysical domination of this system over the protagonist. Finally, the same feeling of the protagonist’s inner sensations “leaking” out and away from her, mixing in with the surroundings, and creating the quasi-realistic landscape which we end up witnessing. All of the overt allegories which recur throughout the film, such as the Christmas weighing scale tradition, the parallels with Anne Boleyn, or the tragic destiny of the royal pheasants, only serve to additionally strengthen the impression that what we’re shown is far from realistic.

This lack of subtlety, reminiscent of Kafka’s immediately recognizable literary aesthetic, albeit in a very far-fetched way, instantly lets us know that we’re in a non-mimetic representation of a world, a representation which, as far as we’re concerned, could be the narrow perspective through which Diana herself sees her surroundings. And if so, this embodied inner world, this complex system of narrative movement, character agency, and repressed desire needs something to work on, an energetic current of sorts, that breathes life into it. Hence, the erotic charge.

Yet, the erotic charge in Spencer, which deals with an atmosphere of entrapment and confusion, driven forward by a disjointed musical score, seems to be depicted from a reversed perspective. Unlike what we see in Kafka, it is no longer passionate and pleasurably perverted, but nauseating, disorienting, and feverish. Sensed underneath all the heavily aestheticized cinematographic choices, instead of feeling pleasant, even when it should it feels unpleasant and uncomfortable, precisely when it should be most comforting and welcoming. It feels stale and almost violent, as if it’s involuntarily thrown at both Diana and us, as if it’s a manic energetic current which requires an inhumanely high degree of stamina in order for one to be able to keep up with it. It is the reversed side of eroticism’s coin.

And this would hardly be a new conclusion to arrive at. After all, according to Georges Bataille’s theory, eroticism and disgust indeed are but two halves of the same coin, two passionate movements that ravage a person’s body and drive their mind to a frenzy. While Kafka decides to lend a humorous, sexual undertone to suffocating bureaucracy, Larraín decides to focus on the nauseous, and chaotic leftover of an already depleted sexual tension. Since, if one were to make the clearest parallel between the two, one would say that if Kafka’s tension was a build-up of erotic energy without release, Larraín’s tension is the unnecessary continuation of a sexual act post-climax, the superfluous and unpleasant stimulation of an already sore, and utterly desexualized body which tries to resist – in vain. Both are, in essence, infinitely extendable, both operate with fluctuations of intensity rather than with climaxes and releases, and both have the power to drive one to madness.

In this sense, Spencer is like a bad drug trip that never ends, an endless ride on the most beautiful, yet nauseating roller coaster; the surroundings are gorgeous, the film shots, the colors, the sets, are magnificent, the prestige of royal life, with its exalted traditions, with all its quirks and rules, is suffocating, but also an undeniable privilege to be a part of. The loveliness of it all is excessive. Yet, also, obvious. Similarly to how one always doubts whether, secretly, Kafka’s rebellious protagonists are, in fact, in allegiance with the system oppressing them, whether they complacently “provoked” it, only to have the opportunity to erotically oppose it, one could, in a way, posit that someone like Diana must have known what they were getting themselves into. Everybody knows at least part of the things that the “royal life” entails; to get as far as married into that family, one would have to, at least partially, desire it. From this perspective it is highly probable that, at least in the beginning, the erotic charge was there before, one day, Diana woke up to realize that it had evaporated, that she was far too deep inside, and that there was no longer a way out.

It was on this day that Spencer’s magnificent hallways, delicious, personalized meals, and lush gowns, became dizzying and vomit-inducing. The same way that Kafka’s literally suffocating corridors, which look and feel unpleasant, suddenly became precisely what charges the protagonist sexually. And, in the case of the former, this is apparent in a visual sense too – for instance, the abrupt cuts between two dazzling sets inside the mansion, one warm red-and-golden corridor, through which Diana walks in her elegant gown, and the other a, cool, greenish bathroom – equally luxurious – where the naked Diana kneels, is subconsciously repulsive to us as viewers. The superposition of so many rooms and gardens which are so beautifully different, yet so cold, sharp, and impeccably ordered, without one hair out of line, can drive anyone crazy.

In fact, the only way that we manage to survive this journey is by being led – conducted, so to speak – by the director, on the one hand, and by Stewart’s acting, on the other, with Diana representing a sort of Virgil to our descent into “hell.” We are led around this strange fever-dream and made to simultaneously enjoy its beauty and tender uniqueness, while also begging for it to finally end, to show us the door, to open out into the real world. In the film’s final minutes we do seem to get precisely this, when Diana leaves the mansion with her sons, going around London eating fast food and listening to music. But, do we really? Is this exit real, or is it, like all the others, nothing more than an illusion? While our senses insinuate the former, all the film-signs, in addition to our knowledge about the real-life events that followed this, suggest the latter. For someone like Diana, there seems to be no real exit out of the palace. At least not without a lethal price.

And this revelation ultimately leads us to the main question, the crux of both Larraín’s film, and all of Kafka’s works: can there be an exit? Considering the almost solipsistic (from an epistemological point of view) nature of this world, we’re forced to pose this question. Kafka did too, many times, in countless different ways. In fact, not to sound too dismissive, I would claim that Larraín can only hope to pose it in as many diverse and creative ways as the literary master did, since, arguably, Kafka’s genius lies precisely in the unsolvable nature of his puzzles. They’re forever mysterious, yet open to an infinite myriad of interpretations, open to parallels and comparisons with anything and everything, strangely welcoming in their nightmarish design. And, at the end of the day, they never are concluded. Kafka never gives an answer, never reveals the exit, never saves the sufferer. Larraín, on the other hand, in his somewhat melodramatic biopic, does. In doing so, he flirted with making an enormous creative mistake, one which would utterly have cost him the quality of his film, yet, considering the little film-world that he built, considering all its metaphors and symbolic foreshadows, his answer turned out to be more than satisfactory.

The metaphors, allegories, and symbols are of crucial importance because it is through them that this answer is actually given. As the royal head chef, Darren McGrady (Sean Harris), says regarding the royal pheasants, they’re either bred to be killed by the royal family, or, if they manage to escape the property, they’re doomed to be run over by a vehicle. Whatever outcome, they end up tragically dying. Even the exit of the “game,” is, in fact, a planned part of it. Once inside, you can never really leave. And should you, even? Would we even want to leave? Can we, perhaps, manage to accept the surreal nightmare of the castle (Kafka’s or Diana’s), and live as a part of it?

At this point, it is not a matter of acceptance; the erotic, or, conversely, the nauseating experience of the castle is set in stone, like a pre-programmed, subconscious absolute. One can never accept it, just as one can never really fight it, let alone triumph over it. One’s reaction to and feeling towards the bureaucratic/royal labyrinth is part of the whole experience. The individual – K., or Diana – is an actual part of the system, the individual is the system. And their opposition, their rebellion, too, is not a real enmity, but an internal, necessary mechanism. In this sense, the only thing that could be said is that the events that did take place were the only events that could ever have taken place. The whole situation is not a matter of if-s, when-s, how-s, or what-s, but a matter of an already predetermined narrative and structural outcome, an intricately calculated mathematical equation. The only exit from the castle is the one that we get when we close the book, leave the cinema, or turn the film off. Any other exit is impossible to even fathom. ▲

Sasho Pshenko is a Film Aesthetics graduate from the University of Oxford, with a background in Comparative Literature. Torn between desires for both academia and practical filmmaking, he spends his time pondering over various topics from the fields of literature, film, and philosophy.

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