We begin with an evening walking through the artificial cities of the Fox Studios lot, accompanied by a Turk who can read a star map, graced with a name that has a royal origin. She inevitably helps us find our way among the maze of this place. It is but a day after the republic has cast its vote in another election embodying well these mad times. We walk through the false New York streets of the lot, nestled within the west side of Los Angeles. Like power, the city within this city is but an illusion. Such are the perfect conditions to enter the world of The Favourite, the new film by Greek enfant terrible Yorgos Lanthimos. Like his ancestors, Luis Bunuel, Tristan Tzara and other practitioners of the surreal arts, Lanthimos captures this era in civilization better than almost any other director. This new work reaches back into the past, yet has a timeless force in its dissection and sheer mocking of the pageantry of empire.
Lanthimos’s debut 2009 film, Dogtooth, about a Greek family where two daughters are kept strictly hidden from the world, their father conveniently deforming language to mislead their perceptions, is a mockery of totalitarian repression. His 2011 follow up, Alps, uses the idea of people who pretend to be a deceased loved one visiting a grieving family. The ritual of mourning is exposed as a mere decoration for deep pain. For his debut in English, Lanthimos tackles our sense of romance and true love with The Lobster. I dare say this is the greatest cinematic romance of the last decade. Set in a dystopia where those who are single must find a partner at a secluded getaway or face being turned into animals, it is defiant in insisting love must develop organically and according to its own rhythms.
It would appear Lanthimos has always been working his way towards The Favourite, a viciously funny take on the aesthetics of the costume drama. It is set in a 1700s England where the plump and sickly Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is overseen by Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), a strict enforcer who insists the crown continue to wage war against the French. To the palace arrives a mud-stained Abigail (Emma Stone), given by her father to a German after losing her in a bet, Abigail also happens to be Lady Sarah’s cousin. She is put to work in the kitchen, but soon she begins to plot her rise by slowly winning the Queen’s affections. This will unleash a war of jealousies and power plays where the most savage wit will win.
Much has been written about Lanthimos’s dark, and at times bloody sense of humor, where human codes of conduct easily break down. In The Favourite, the codes and manners of the aristocrats degrade into a barbarous stew, but barbarous in the way imperial classes tend to behave — decadence decorated by class. There is almost nothing as tragically comic as power. What a fate to have control over the state and others, yet be a joke yourself. The world today feels ruled by the mad. With his new film, Lanthimos dabbles in a tradition going back to two classical Romans, Petronius and Juvenal. These two satirists gleefully chortled with bitter irony at the imperial society of their day. They did it so well, in fact, that their works feel more contemporary than any heavy, ten ton work by some historian. Instead of a serious scholar scribbling away by a desk, it is easy to imagine Juvenal, clinching his toga, walking down the street and observing with a merciless eye when he writes in The Sixteen Satires, “Do you see that distinguished lady? She has the perfect dose for her husband- old wine with a dash of parching toad’s blood.” Juvenal could be writing about our political crises when he screeches, “Honesty’s praised, but honest men freeze. Wealth springs from crime.” Petronius would add in his Satyricon, “What good are the laws where money is king?”
The Favourite invites us to walk through the palace halls of 1700s England with a critical eye accompanied by a grin. All human passions materialize within these lush halls, extravagant furniture and dreamy candles casting their harvest moon glow. Yet almost from the beginning, Lanthimos distorts our notions of a period piece. Abigail rides in a carriage and a lustful man sitting in front of her begins to furiously masturbate. She is thrown into the mud, a hand quickly grabbing her posterior. Caked in mud she arrives at the royal palace, at first appearing as not much of a threat in the eyes of the coldly focused Lady Sarah. As in Lanthimos’s previous film, last year’s eerie The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the camera tracks down halls, following characters as if the audience member were a voyeur. If The Lobster guided us through a futuristic world of lonely hearts, The Favourite is full of powdered faces content (or appearing content) in imperial decadence. In one of the film’s great early sequences, aristocrats cheer and go mad within the royal halls as they race ducks. Lanthimos slows down the image, so we can bask in the surreal details. An aristocrat named Godolphin (James Smith) will constantly appear with his prized duck, walking him as one would a poodle. In a later sequence a naked man in a wig will become the target of party goers aiming fruits at him, creating a colorful splatter. The Queen seems to collect revelers the way Philip II of Spain was known to collect dwarves in his own court. She herself is obsessed with her pet rabbits, which are her only true loves. In a world where humans are hard to trust, the pets offer a warmth that is missing.
The rituals of court become exposed as hilarious posturing. Lanthimos goes beyond the semi-Punk tone of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, where the court of Louis XVI dances to “Hong Kong Garden” by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Here Lady Sarah picks a man down the line and the two begin moving like a mix of Pulp Fiction and swing dancing. Like the Dadaists poking fun at the absurdities of language, Lanthimos is taking the old world of these ruffled dresses, high heels and extravagant wigs to dissect royalty itself. In his fun book about the French Revolution, Vive la Revolution: A Stand up History of the French Revolution, Mark Steel rolls his eyes at how even today, when the Queen of England travels and uses a restroom at a lavish resort or locale, the area is closed off several hours, lest the common folk get a whiff that the monarch is but merely human. Surely Lanthimos must be influenced in his work by what has happened in his home country. Following the 2009 economic collapse, Greece has been a laboratory of economic fantasy, dashed hopes, radical political ideals of the left and right, with a population not sure what is truth, yet certain doom is approaching.
The idea of power in The Favourite works like a vortex pulling everyone into an intense dance. Lady Sarah is obsessed with making sure the Queen continue a disastrous war against France, even as the pompous minister Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), representative of the land owning class, tries to convince her otherwise. Sarah’s hidden objective is that the war will boost the fortunes of her husband, Marlborough (Mark Gatiss). Then, as now, war becomes a tool to promote certain interests that the common people never benefit from. Of course Lady Sarah will use manufactured fears to promote her cause, such as the fantasy of phantom French soldiers rampaging through England, “sodomizing wives.” Surely someone right now is in the White House conjuring visions of Iranian soldiers storming the shores of Florida, or Hondurans roaring across the Texas border.
Lanthimos’s use of language in this film is an eloquent assault on high manners. Public officials will behave a certain way before the masses, pretending to be the perfect symbols of civility. Recently in our own political culture, in no small part thanks to our current commander-in-chief, the public decorum of politics, with its hypocrisies and feel good phrases, has begun to fall apart. In The Favourite, the wicked screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara gives us personalities who walk with perfect posture and composed faces, yet utter words of subtle, sometimes brutally direct violence. Consider this exchange between Abigail and Lady Sarah:
Abigail: My good friend, how good to see you’ve returned from…
Lady Sarah: Hell. I’m sure you shall pass through it one day.
In another scene Lady Sarah makes it clear she has won yet again in the effort to keep the Queen convinced war with France is necessary, and so Harley explodes, demolishing a table in a sudden outburst. Yet no one truly flinches. They seem to just pity the man. From a Saudi writer being greeted with chainsaws in an embassy to the president kicking out a CNN writer, power and its fears has a way of provoking the bloodiest of impulses. Abigail soon wins Anne’s favor by treating her case of gout. This in turn awakens a piercing sense of threat and jealousy from Lady Sarah. Once Abigail, wandering around a palace library in the nightly shadows, catches Sarah and Anne fooling around, she begins her own game of seduction. All of it is a play for power in a world where gossip is currency and friends are but chess pieces or morsels for an ensuing feast.
Affection, influence and insecurities all swirl within The Favourite to show the comically tragic truth behind power- that its wielders are just as vulnerable and frail as anyone else. Remember that section in the book Fire and Fury, about how the night Trump won the election, Melania was seen in tears, not out of joy but out of sorrow that her world would now be changed forever. That gossipy Roman Suetonius tells us Nero was so desperate to be loved for his singing, that any threats to him winning a music competition would be swiftly executed. In Lanthimos’s England, duck racing fuels egos, Anne becomes convinced someone called her fat (to which Lady Sarah replies, “No one but me would dare, and I did not”), and Harley reminds us that “a man must always look pretty.” The great performance of this film is Olivia Colman, who plays Anne large. She who pouts, pines, cries, whines, yet is capable of projecting her authority with sharp word or a swift wave of the hand.
But what exactly love means in this world? Looming over every relationship is the obsession with keeping a certain position near the Queen. Abigail falls for Masham (Joe Alwyn), or seems to. He’s more of a convenient tool for marriage so Abigail can look proper before the aristocrats of the court. It’s a new take on the classic romantic angle of this kind of film, where the damsel falls for the dashing lad in a puffy shirt. But on their wedding night she is preoccupied with scheming her next move against Lady Sarah, satisfying the anxious Masham by simply jerking him off, not even bothering to look back at him during the deed. Retaining power in this den of hyenas is more important. One is reminded that the Trumps reportedly sleep in separate beds, and Gore Vidal claims in his memoirs that the Kennedys were a classic, aristocrat marriage, a leftover arrangement from past centuries.
The Favourite is the period piece we were waiting for in this age of surreal living. The aesthetic of great films like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth fuels the elegant cinematography by Robbie Ryan, but the beautiful frames are then torn asunder with devilish glee. Lady Sarah and Abigail go do some target practice and, unlike other films, Lanthimos films the pistol shots hitting the birds, splattering blood on Lady Sarah’s face. The bourgeois sport suddenly gives Lady Sarah a taste of reality. A fish eye lens shows us the expansive, yet confined world inside the palace. For a moment it seems Abigail has gained the upper hand on Lady Sarah, but everyone in this film is trapped by their own passions. The ending is stark, almost terribly so. A final close up, amid a swarm of bunnies.
Lanthimos is a filmmaker capable of not so much altering our perception of the world as making it clearer. As societies our rulers are comic operas, both funny and tragic. Beyond the halls of power, we are all victims as well to our follies. The Favourite knows this all too well. Back into the fall evening we go, accompanied by the elegantly-named Turkish star gazer, exiting the factory of illusions you find in a studio lot, as much a labyrinth of fantasy and influence as the White House or Versailles. In the far away distance a fire is burning. These are all reality, and after experiencing another original and striking work by Lanthimos, we are grateful to be but witnesses outside of the golden cage.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.