Life Is But a Scheme
by Demitra Kampakis
Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland/U.K./U.S.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer was a macabre and modern reimagining of the myth of Agamemnon. In his new film The Favourite, Lanthimos’s inspiration is historical rather than literary. Set in 18th-century England during the reign of Queen Anne (a fabulously frail and petulant Olivia Colman), the film features Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Hill, respectively, two royal blood cousins who viciously vie for the attention and affections of the fickle monarch—this despite Abigail no longer holding the title of Lady due to the actions of her disgraced father. In different ways, Abigail and Lady Sarah are both crafty and cunning women, each with her own personal reasons for wanting to be in the Queen’s good graces; though the status, decadence, and power that come with it surely are not far from their minds.
Lady Sarah, a stealthy raven with her jet-black hair, pronounced cheekbones, and Victorian power suits, is essentially the Queen’s eyes and ears—serving as her proxy during parliamentary meetings, she feeds the Queen wartime advice that aligns with her own political agenda. Although Lady Sarah’s husband is on the frontlines of the Great War of Spanish Succession, she has no desire to draft a peace treaty with France, which she believes—despite being victorious in the first battle—would send a message of weakness that could prove devastatingly fatal for her country, quipping that the French would not hesitate to “sodomize us and plant garlic in our fields” the minute the English have their guard down. In addition to being the Queen’s most trusted advisor, the two women are also secret lovers, further cementing the Duchess’s throne-adjacent ranking. It’s a cushy position to be in no doubt, and Sarah does milk it with mordant, upper-handed pleasure.
That is, until Abigail turns up out of the blue one day seeking gainful employment as a servant. Shattering the women’s clandestine domesticity, Abigail learns of their love affair and decides to use it as her entry point for besting Lady Sarah and driving a rift between the two. Gaining leverage through charm and seduction, Abigail slowly gains the Queen’s trust and good faith, much to the consternation and fury of Lady Sarah. Starting off as a kitchen maid, Abigail is a quick study, and she uses her wits and initiative to first ingratiate herself with Duchess Sarah—who takes her on as her personal servant—before setting her eyes on the grand prize. Thus begins the precocious handmaiden’s steady climb from disheveled underdog to wily courtesan, as she seeks to become the Queen’s new confidante and regain her title as Lady, while battling for her superior’s heart and mind.
Though the Duchess and the Queen have a tempestuous dynamic, it is one of mutual understanding. Through her playful barbs and unfettered honesty, Lady Sarah has proven that she’s a loyal companion, rather than a conformist sycophant. The two have developed a distinct and peculiar rapport, and the former knows how to navigate the latter’s capricious flights of temperament—which is perhaps why they are so well suited for each other. Their relationship is politically beneficial to Lady Sarah, but the Duchess is never less than transparent about it, and that doesn’t make their connection any less sincere. And though Abigail at first seems well-suited to become another kindred soul to the Queen, it isn’t until she’s fully inserted and endeared herself to Anne that the Queen learns otherwise.
The deception, debauchery, and dysfunction that ensue as a result of this power struggle are a bitter delight to behold. Fans of Lanthimos will undoubtedly be pleased that the sharp edge of this director’s sardonic sensibilities have not been dulled in this bigger-budget offering, thanks to a wickedly funny screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Yet none of this would work without the trio of performances that anchor the film—especially that of the formidable Colman, who brings both a childlike helplessness and a testy turbulence to the Queen. It’s clear these actors are having a blast chewing through each scene, as all the performances—including supporting turns from Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn—are in perfect sync with the singular anachronistic tone characteristic of Lanthimos’s work. Striking a uniquely dissonant chord, each actor captures the fine balance of grotesquerie and sincerity that the filmmaker is so often drawn to.
As with his previous films, The Favourite works in an idiosyncratic register that distills Lanthimos’s austere and sometimes brutal gaze to darkly comic effect. Here, he reimagines the period piece as an acerbic battleground of wits, where no behavior, interaction, or pastime is too eccentric or primal. Rabbit husbandry, indoor duck racing, and a bizarre iteration of dodge ball involving grapefruits are just some of the concoctions brewed in this fully inhabited, if skewed world that’s at best stylistically adjacent to other “historical” films. It turns out that a baroque costume drama is the perfect vehicle for Lanthimos’s off-kilter sensibilities. Trafficking in tragicomic territory that often veers into surrealism, Lanthimos uses each character’s political machinations to again highlight the absurdity of human behavior; each line of dialogue is delivered with affected deadpan irony that effectively contrasts with the film’s fraught psychosexual undercurrents and political scheming.
A vanguard auteur of the “Greek Weird Wave,” Lanthimos delivers another parable of moral rot and the corrosive effects that power has on the human psyche. As with Dogtooth, Alps, and The Lobster, The Favourite largely achieves this through sexually fraught interpersonal dynamics, and the ironic chasm between text and subtext baked into every line of dialogue. By focusing more on these women’s character arcs and relegating the politicking to the background, The Favourite epitomizes the ways in which the personal is political and vice versa, for the behind-the-scenes manipulations and machinations that transpire have a resounding effect on the country’s fate during the war.
Yet as much as the film bears the creative trademark of its director, it also represents a divergence for Lanthimos. The director knows his audience will enter a film such as this with some notions of period film conventions, and he seems to all but delight in the opportunity to upend expectations. Peppered with profanity (one would also be hard-pressed to find a period drama that takes such indulgent glee in using the word cunt), this is in many ways an anti-period period piece, as he deconstructs tropes through anachronistic stylistic choices. Granted, this isn’t the first film to deconstruct the costume drama—Stanley Kubrick did it in Barry Lyndon, for one—but unlike its predecessors, The Favourite is antagonistic both to the genre it represents and the milieu it inhabits. With little time for pleasantries, all social pretenses fall to the wayside, allowing the animalistic impulsivity of Lanthimos’s characters to serve as a refreshing foil to the formal etiquette of the Elizabethan era.
From contemporary dialogue that avoids any faithfulness to the kind of dialect that would be found in a Shakespeare play, to a discordant soundtrack that ranges from operatic to screechy electro-synth to period-appropriate classical scores by Schumann and Bach (among others), the film seems unconcerned with historical accuracy. A raucous contemporary dance sequence that wavers between waltz and breakdance is jarring in a Victorian banquet hall. There’s also ever-so-subtle present-day flourishes (literally) woven into the printed fabric of Sandy Powell’s costumes—her classically constructed ensembles are infused with bold prints and colors whose modern edginess cuts through the stilted elegance of the bodices, to say nothing of the ostentatious flash of the women’s jewelry, which looks like something straight out of the Met Gala. There’s even a nice Xena-inspired touch to the Queen’s gladiator-like equestrian stirrups.
The film’s slapstick also serves to undercut the posh pageantry of a historical film. In one memorable scene, Stone’s Abigail is scuffling in the woods with a potential paramour, and their scrappy sparring resembles a kind of violent mating ritual. For Lanthimos, fighting and fornication go hand in hand—yet consider the difference with which he renders the film’s straight depictions of sex as opposed to the queer trysts seen between the women. Whereas the prurient scenes between Abigail and Masham (Alwyn) are filmed with a kind of primitive urgency and emotional remove, those involving the lesbian unions are filmed with a soft intimacy visualized through candle-lit silhouettes. Abigail’s sexual power plays perfectly distill the film’s different approaches to sex. From the start, she makes it very clear to Masham that she’s not your average submissive female, and in the sexually charged scenes with him, her clothing mimics that utilitarian straightforwardness; either in full costume, or simple nighttime frocks, there’s nothing sensual or romantic to her garb. Yet when she seduces the Queen, she does so with a massage-like gentleness, amidst plush linens and delicate sheer fabrics that slip over her shoulder like butter. Nimbly pivoting from fiery femme fatale to innocent chambermaid, Stone’s Abigail weaponizes her sexuality as both a cudgel and a form of currency, the former for her male targets, the latter for the female ones.
As with Dogtooth and The Lobster, Lanthimos loves to draw out uncomfortable laughter either through sex or bloodshed or both, and once again he doesn’t shy away from the tactile intimacy of violence. Every whip cracking, slap across the face, and, in one case, self-inflicted face bashing, is filmed with a cold and unrelenting matter-of-factness, and often in close-up with heightened audio that further amplifies the incongruity between the characters’ social standards of civility and their actual behavior. Frequently focusing on the recipient of said violence with a dry, merciless remove, Lanthimos loves to push his audience’s tolerance for masochism, which is rendered all the more destabilizing in its banality, as memorably seen in Dogtooth, where the family patriarch inflicts whiplash violence on his children and female employee with little thought or forewarning. In essence, the duel between Abigail and the Duchess is an aristocratically dignified brawl, and the juxtaposition of carnality and civility further underscores the characters’ paradoxical depravity.
Weaving in and out of banquet halls, lavish bedrooms, and ornate hallways, DP Robbie Ryan’s camera sumptuously captures the flamboyance and extravagance of the elite with expressive fluidity that makes effective use of fisheye lenses to spatially warp each frame. These cerebral wide-angle shots emphasize and distort the vast and empty spaces each character inhabits, both physically and emotionally. As Lanthimos stated at the film’s NYFF press conference, these women are “lone figures” who are disaffected by their surroundings, and Ryan beautifully communicates that sense of alienation and claustrophobia.
At the center of The Favourite’s forced decorum lies a pitilessness, and though the characters don’t really have much mercy for one another, there are striking moments of uncharacteristic tenderness exhibited by Lanthimos toward his protagonists, particularly Queen Anne, who is perhaps the film’s emotional fulcrum. Infirm and often irrational, she wavers between jovial and juvenile with little warning—and although a character like this could be easily dismissed as unstable and erratic, Colman brings flickers of warmth and melancholy, with a revelation about her past that helps explain her mercurial disposition. As much authority as the Queen wields, she is also terribly lonely and vulnerable, and in seeking the love and respect from those who matter most to her, she never hesitates to lavishly spoil them. Whether through custom-built palaces or bountiful dowries, the Queen’s generosity is heartbreaking to witness, as it’s clear she yearns for children to spoil, and instead becomes an unwitting pawn in a scrupulous game of one-upmanship. Calculating as she may be, Sarah truly loves the Queen, which is why it’s almost poetic that in trying to hurt her lover, she ends up hurting herself more. In fact, each character is so blinded by her ulterior motives that she doesn’t realize how self-destructive and self-defeating her actions are. In striving for respect, loyalty, companionship, power, or status, each woman inadvertently sabotages her chances of achieving just that. It’s the film’s tragic irony.