05.13.11

Unlawful Killing: Cannes' Princess Di Outrage

Wacky theories about Diana's death in the new doc Unlawful Killing are making waves at the French festival. Richard Porton says the film is as awfully made as factually confused.

Before the Cannes screening of Unlawful Killing, a ragtag compendium of conspiracy theories surrounding the 1997 death of Princess Diana, Keith Allen, the film’s director, urged the assembled critics and distributors to refrain from branding him a “raving Republican” (i.e. anti-monarchist) or “Trotskyist.”

While no signs of any emotional investment in the doctrines of Trotsky’s Fourth International were evident in the film, it was more than slightly disingenuous for Allen to claim that members of the royal family are not among an array of suspects that form part of Unlawful Killing’s sweeping indictment of the “British Establishment,” supposed accomplices in covering up fateful evidence that might diverge from the mainstream press’s conclusion that chauffeur Henri Paul’s drunken driving and/or the hot pursuit by  the paparazzi were the main culprits in the death of the “People’s Princess.”

Video screenshot

Like many conspiracy theories that attract passionate adherents—the 9/11 truth movement and recent rumors about Osama bin Laden come easily to mind—the fierce critics of the official inquest into the deaths of Diana and Dodi Fayed put impartial observers in an uncomfortable position. The unstated implication is that if you don’t accept, for example, the strong possibility that MI6 might have been working in collusion with the royals to murder the disgruntled princess, you must be a reactionary lackey of the Establishment.

No one has been a more tireless critic of the official story of Diana’s death than Mohamed Al Fayed, the father of her late lover Dodi, and it was revealed at the post-screening press conference that Al Fayed was the main—ostensibly the only— investor in Allen’s film. (Al Fayed, scheduled to attend, was inexplicably absent—even though Conor Nolan, his spokesman, was on hand to answer queries.) Consequently, Unlawful Killing reflects Al Fayed’s more than slightly paranoid view of the fateful crash in Paris’s Pont de l’Alma tunnel.

Gallery: Cannes Red Carpet

While some of the journalists on hand at the press conference might have had an axe to grind concerning their evident displeasure with Allen’s coyness concerning the extent of Al Fayed’s investment in the movie ( Martyn Gregory, who has consistently attempted to debunk Diana conspiracy theories, revealed that an interview he granted to Allen was consigned to the proverbial cutting-room floor), it was obvious that most of the working press, including of course a large British contingent, were annoyed that this basic fact was eliminated from all of the production notes and pre-publicity for an investigative documentary that, for the most part, rehashed old canards.

Although the media frenzy at Cannes involved factual disputations instead of aesthetic judgments, it must be said that Allen’s documentary is a laughably tacky piece of filmmaking. Allen employs every hackneyed trick of the documentary trade imaginable: heavy-handed voice-over narration, “man-in the street” interviews, ominous music as accusations accelerate, and inept “reenactments” of actual events. Some of the more over-the-top interviews, particularly an unproductive detour in which psychologist Oliver James brands Prince Philip a “psychopath,” almost seemed culled from a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary. And Allen certainly detracts from his case by including shock jock Howard Stern’s sympathetic interview with Al Fayed as part of the dossier for the prosecution. A montage of images of Charles and Diana’s wedding is gauchely scored to country singer Alan Jackson’s “Little Bitty.” If Allen is attempting to emulate Michael Moore’s use of popular music for satirical effect, the result is sadly inept.

Quite predictably, as with many suspicions concerning Diana’s death, the famous letter from the princess to her butler Paul Burrell that mentions the possibility of her husband planning an automobile “accident” is one of the main pieces of evidence flaunted early in the film. The foregrounding of this admittedly provocative document inspires a number of conspiratorial tributaries that blatantly contradict each other. If Diana was killed for angering the royals by carrying on an affair with a Muslim man, how could she also be killed for threatening the interests of the Ministry of Defense by campaigning against land mines? Accusations that blood samples from Henri Paul were switched to make him seem intoxicated are trotted out in the same reflexive manner that 9/11 “truthers” invoke theories of “planned demolitions” destroying the World Trade Center.

At times, Allen seems to be suggesting that the mere obnoxiousness of some of the royals’ social views somehow implicates them in an assassination plot against Diana. There is unquestionably something odious about the Duke of Edinburgh’s youthful link with the Nazis and the photographs Allen includes (some of which have appeared in the British press on earlier occasions) of the queen’s husband clearly present at National Socialist events. But when deployed as part of an argument to cast doubt on the mainstream media’s “official story,” this line of attack is nothing but a giant non sequitur.

In a similar vein, Allen’s understandable disdain for the vast amounts of money spent in Britain on the upkeep of royal properties just seems like superfluous anti-monarchist boilerplate within a 85-minute film that purports to break new investigative ground. The characterization of the royal family as “gangsters in tiaras” was met with a huge laugh from the audience at the market screening—even though one-liners do little to flesh out the documentary’s convoluted, and ultimately incoherent, argument.

Although the media frenzy involved factual disputations instead of aesthetic judgments, it must be said that Allen’s documentary is a laughably tacky piece of filmmaking.

These caveats notwithstanding, the fact that legal impediments make it impossible to screen Unlawful Killing in the United Kingdom is nothing short of outrageous. Allen’s claim that lawyers are suggesting that 87 cuts would be needed to enable a British commercial release reflects the unsavory influence of punitive libel laws on free expression in a country where civil liberties are often in conflict with bureaucratic imperatives. The film’s fleeting inclusion of a photograph of Diana in her death throes should not be used as a pretext for effectively banning the cinematic equivalent of an op-ed piece.

Allen finished his introductory remarks at Cannes by framing Unlawful Killing as the ultimate “antidote” to The King’s Speech and its reverential view of the British aristocracy. Although that’s a laudable aim, the problem with this rhetorical ploy is that Allen’s own film is suffused with an odd combination of leftist posturing and undiluted reverence for Diana, an aristocrat who might have possessed a humanist touch but whose views certainly did not mesh with those of Tony Benn and George Galloway, the left-of-center politicians he chooses to represent the fierce anti-monarchist strain in certain segments of British society.

It is equally odd that Allen, who describes himself as “anti-capitalist,” is in cahoots with the billionaire Al Fayed, a magnate who once owned the luxury department store Harrods and has never come off as an embodiment of disinterested radicalism. Perhaps the crux of the matter is that Allen’s litany of innuendos and red herrings amounts to mere pseudo-radicalism. It’s little more than emotional blackmail to maintain that rejecting his film’s premise is tantamount to a conformist alliance with a monolithic Establishment.

Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste magazine in New York and has written on film for Cinema Scope, In These Times, and Moving Image Source. His anthology, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press), was published in 2009.