The Favourite Yorgos Lanthimos (UK 2018) Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone Rachel Weisz
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 2nd Jan 2019; ticket £9.75
fable for the times
Lanthimos’ script weaves its narrative as a web of relations between three women, Queen Anne, and her two favourites. Sarah and Abigail, transposing an eighteenth century event into the realm of contemporary filmic drama. The problem with period settings is that often the backgrounds the costumes and appurtenances get to take centre stage. This can leave the content visually overwhelmed causing it to meld into inconsequentiality. A case of style taking precedence over substance.
Lanthimos’s movie doesn’t fall into the latter category. But Lanthimos seems to have fallen foul of the English Country House Syndrome in as much as filmmakers have often found it difficult to connect to these artificially preserved domains that represent lives now alien to us.
Lanthimos’ previous movie ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ was enjoyable for the way in which he conscripted the American settings, the hospital, the suburbs, into the film’s mythic structure. These settings, depicted as emptied out space culturally evacuated of human drama, were transformed into satirised locations in which the black comedy of a ritual meaningful death was played out.
This fusing of setting and theme is also remarkable in films like Petri’s ‘Property is No Longer a Theft’ and Resnais’ ‘Last Year in Marienbad’. As in ‘The Favourite’ the settings of these films are of an historical provenance; the rich decoration of the interiors is given force by complex camera choreography lending to Petri and Resnais’ films another layer of cinematic immanence to their themes.
“The Favourite’ for all Lanthimos’ tracks, long shots and fish-eye wide angle shots (ugly and distracting to my eye; but perhaps Lanthimos in using this lens wanted to point to artifice) he creates neither feelings of immersion nor possession; only the feeling that these long galleries, these wainscoted chambers, these high ceilinged salons, are ultimately nothing more than backdrops. For all he tries Lanthimos just seems to be stuck with the space. Anne Sarah Abigail are all detached from the spaces in which they move, not enveloped. The built structures and their embellishment play no actual part in psychic dynamic of the film. It is melodrama that envelopes the women.
But whilst the script uses a classic melodrama engine to drive the scenario, ‘The Favourite’ is more about form than content, form that is based on opposition. The opposition of the male and the female is the key proposition. The melodramatic goings on, the power play between the three protagonists, takes second place to their relationship and confrontation with the male dominated world.
The trio of woman are all anachronistically wig-free. Their freedom of expression and their modernity expressed by the free locks of their hair. Contrarily the men are grounded in the times, bewigged and emotionally straightened and symbolically condemned to immobility by the artificiality of their headwear. When Abigail asks Harley to remove his wig so that she can see who he is, he is abashed, reluctant to remove this totemic symbol of his male power.
Sarah and Abigail (in particular) are represented as modern women ready to pick up the baton of power from men who are unable to move foreword into our times. The women are self confident, through their own internal force they are the equal of men: they can shoot like men, ride a horse like men, take a tumble like a man, swear like men and fight. And they are sexually self sufficient, able and able to satisfy their physical sexual needs by themselves or through the ministration of woman.
The actual historical elements of The Favourite are unimportant. the film is a modern parable, a statement of today’s oppositional gender politics. A point concentrated in the ball room sequence where instead of moving to the restrained conventions of the baroque, the women launch into a wild unrestrained Greek taverna dance. It might be said that the the Favourite depicts a female zero sum competition, but it does so within a world where the power play is between women. It’s a film that points to a future that is governed by female not male humours.
As far as I am aware this is the first movie Lanthimos has made that he has not himself co-scripted with Fillipou. I think the film reflects his lack of ownership of the script. His difficulty handling the locations and sets, the reliance on a trite melodramatic device (similar to All about Eve but less effective), the use of the current directorial fad for dividing the script up into little chaptered sections that are meaningless, all add up to a film that is curiously vacuous. This contrasts with the impression left after seeing The Killing of a Sacred Deer, scripted by Lanthimos and Fillipou. Coming out of this movie the feeling was that this film conveyed something the director has seen, that there are forces at work beneath the surfaces of life. IN the Favourate there is only surface, and excepting its oppositional form there is little impression. But the Favourite plays out well to the taste and conceits of the day, and will probably be festooned with the appropriate garlands.