The 64th annual Cannes Film Festival is under way, and the early buzz surrounds a controversial documentary about the 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales. And it’s not even part of the festival’s official programs.
Is this a case of How to Succeed at Cannes (Without Really Trying)? Perhaps so. Here are the pertinent facts: Unlawful Killing is directed by the actor Keith Allen and is being backed by Allen as well as Mohamed al Fayed, whose son Dodi died with Diana in that fateful car crash in Paris. The documentary is said to include a graphic black-and-white closeup of Diana that was taken mere moments after the car crashed in the underpass.
PHOTOS: Visions of Princess Diana
Knowledge of the distressing image is well known (it has been published in some publications), but no British media outlets have ever shown it, as they consider it too offensive, which, when you bear in mind the lengths that the British tabloids will often go, is a measure of what we’re dealing with here.
One of those British papers, the Daily Mail, has spoken to friends of the late Princess, who are understandably unhappy with the documentary. “The fact that people are trying to make money — which is all that they are doing now — out of her death is quite frankly … words fail me,” said Rosa Monckton.
And then there’s the royal reaction, specifically that of Diana’s sons, Princes William and Harry. A spokesman for St. James’ Palace declined to comment, but royal sources said they would both be horrified by the film. “They rather hope people would treat this with the contempt it deserves,” said the source, who went on to suggest that neither William nor Harry would comment, as that would give yet more publicity to the film. For William, in particular, this is another uncomfortable reminder of the constant struggle that he and his new bride, Kate Middleton, will face as they try to give the paparazzi the slip.
PHOTOS: The Princess Diana Inquest
But it’s impossible to ignore the gathering headlines surrounding Unlawful Killing. A screening has been planned for May 13 in the Marché du Film Olympia 2, with al Fayed supposedly traveling to France to help with the launch. TIME’s Richard Corliss, who has covered Cannes for close to 40 years, has weighed in on the furor:
News wires are buzzing with reports that the festival will show Keith Allen’s Unlawful Killing, a documentary that is said to allege a royal conspiracy to cover up the facts of Princess Diana’s 1997 fatal car crash, and may feature a grim photo of Diana in her death car. As of Tuesday night, the film had not been announced as part of any of the festival’s official programs. But any producer can rent a screening room and show movies in the Cannes marketplace; that’s how pornographic movies “played Cannes” in the 1970s. Whether it lives up to its lurid promotion or is even shown, Unlawful Killing will have garnered more publicity than any other film at the festival.
Al Fayed, of course, has his own agenda, which is tied into his belief that there was foul play in the deaths of his son and Diana. Al Fayed has accused Prince Philip of masterminding the crash, even suggesting that Prince Charles was involved (al Fayed has alleged that the plot occurred to stop Diana from marrying his Muslim son).
For the record, in 2008, after an expensive six-month inquest in the U.K., a jury concluded that Diana and Dodi were unlawfully killed as a direct result of grossly negligent driving by their drunk chauffeur, Henri Paul, who also died in the crash. As for the appearance of the graphic photo in the film, a spokesman for al Fayed said, “He was not aware that any photograph taken of any occupant of the car was going to be in this film. He is appalled by that and will be taking all necessary steps to make sure it is not in the film.”
Allen told the Guardian that Unlawful Killing is “not about a conspiracy before the crash but a conspiracy after the crash. A conspiracy organized not by a single arch-fiend but collectively by the British establishment.”
It’s unlikely that Unlawful Killing will ever see the light of day in Britain, with lawyers insisting on 87 cuts. But France and possibly the U.S. will get a chance to make up their own minds. Princess Diana’s story simply refuses to go away.