Opening Friday, Dec. 14
Yorgos Lanthimos approaches filmmaking like an evil genius lovingly devising something between an elaborate game and a lethal trap, as if an old-school comic-book villain had reformed and started making mainstream art movies. On its feverishly rouged faced, The Favourite, a period piece instead of a modern parable, seems like a drastic departure for him. By the time we realize it’s not, it’s too late. Lanthimos has sprung his sneakiest trick yet.
The Favourite takes place in a closed environment suggestive of a psychology experiment, like Dogtooth and The Lobster, and it’s cruelly governed by arcane rules, like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But now, instead of a bizarre love hotel where people who fail to find mates are turned into animals, the experimental group is the court of Queen Anne of Great Britain during the War of Spanish Succession. And instead of a boy with the unexplained power to issue curses, the rules have mundane origins in politics and decorum. Still, Lanthimos finds ample outlets for his fascination with authoritarian absurdity in a cloistered realm where courtiers walk backward out of gracious rooms in which the queen keeps seventeen pet rabbits, one for each of her stillborn children, and the prime minister is cosseting a duck.
The boundary between human and beast gets thin indeed. The Lobster turned on romantic love, while The Killing of a Sacred Deer turned on the filial variety. But The Favourite is driven strictly by lust. The plot, centered on the intrigues of two cousins vying for the queen’s favor, is merely an engine for it. Power is the only thing that matters, and sex is the only way to get it. People hide their exquisite hatred under arch manners and sculptural wigs as they jockey for position, rut, and eat, sometimes all at once. In one memorable bit of foreplay, the queen tries to put a scheming duchess’s whole fist in her mouth.
Behind closed doors, this frenetic dance of aspirants and royals, politicians and generals, based entirely on shifting balances of personal animosity, decides the fates of soldiers and citizens, whom we never see. There are no English people, there is only England, which one loves—so whatever one wants must be good for England. Regarding their own rulers, modern people around the world will not find this early-eighteenth-century dispensation hard to relate to.
Lanthimos directed The Favourite from a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara after cowriting his prior four films with Efthymis Filippou. Their affectless dialogue and the deadpan performances it demanded give way to bone-cracking badinage and heated, if still dry for a melodrama, acting. But this doesn’t disturb the director’s visual hallmarks: his painterly compositions, the joyful malice with which he ruins beauty, and his enchantment with faces in anxious thought. He also still edits like he’s throwing buckets of cold water at us, quite literally at one jump cut. In Lanthimos, even bath-time is bracing.
It would be unwise to watch The Favourite to learn about history. Its leitmotif, the queen’s rabbits, are an invention, and momentous statecraft is just a painted backdrop for Lanthimos’s obscene cantata. He seems to find history itself rather silly—I’m pretty sure the duck is there just to issue one deflating quack during a self-important standoff—and he keeps switching to a fish-eye lens, putting a strange bulge in reality, to remind us he’s making this up. Better to watch it for the alert, sardonic performances and the meanest, filthiest talk you’ll hear in a multiplex. Someone is described in passing as “a balloon-shaped German man with a thin cock,” to give you the mildest possible example.
Olivia Colman lets it rip as a gout-ridden queen whose existence is almost larval, but who can still rouse herself from being fed, fucked, cleaned, and manipulated to make her own moves in the clutch. Rachel Weisz plays Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough—the queen’s closest adviser and clandestine lover—with cold control covered by poisoned compliments and acid wit. As fallen baroness Abigail, Sarah’s cousin and new challenger, Emma Stone is gossamer-wrapped steel. Lest we doubt that this is pure blood sport, Lanthimos keeps dispatching the cousins beyond the estate’s walls with loaded guns and banter. “We’ll make a killer of you yet,” Sarah remarks to Abigail, who later shoots so fast after the pigeon is released that its blood splatters her rival’s face.
It’s tempting to call The Favourite feminist, and many have—but if this is feminism, who would want it? It’s more accurate to say that the women are gloriously wicked and decisive while the men are their foolish pawns, basically furniture. The women mock them by stealing their wigs or painting on false mustaches. You keep forgetting that one of the interchangeable codpieces is Sarah’s husband. Other than Nicholas Hoult, who plays fop Robert Harley with just the right balance of splendor and irony, the only memorable man appears in a single scene. Nude but for a purple wig, he clutches his penis and dances while courtiers pelt him with fruit. It doesn’t seem feminist, exactly, but it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Eventually, there will be a decisive victor in the cousins’ struggle, and she will proclaim, “All I know is, your carriage awaits, and my maid is on the way up with something called a pineapple.” But as the tide of battle shifts back and forth, Abigail’s moral center slides in one direction. “As it turns out, I am capable of much unpleasantness,” she reflects. “I’m on my side. Always. Sometimes, it’s a happy coincidence for you.” She means she has acclimated to this world of grace, glamour, and inbred power, revealed by Lanthimos in all its faithless filth—a world of competition that transmutes virtue to vice. The images are so ravishing and foul, the appetites on display so alluring and repulsive, that you drink it in and spit it out, drink it in and spit it out, just like Queen Anne eating cake until she vomits blue into a priceless urn, and then resumes eating cake.
It’s almost as if Lanthimos’s previous films, in which weird pretexts buffered his visions of humankind’s ridiculous brutality, were all priming us for this one. “Our world is kind of like that, but it’s not really like that,” one could protest. “Sure it is,” The Favourite seems to reply, its tone maybe contemptuous, maybe amused. There is no rejoinder. Open wide.