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How Anti-Period Piece ‘The Favourite’ Subverts Hollywood Genres From Within the Machine

Director Yorgos Lanthimos does away with the prudish niceties of the Merchant Ivory format with satisfying energy

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is an undisputed master of the existentialist chamber drama. His films, which rely on classic theatrical principles, typically maroon a small cast in cloistered environments where time – a dwindling clock, or vast expanses of boredom – looms like a curse. Dogtooth (2009) centres on a nuclear family hidden away at a Greek country estate, their only connection to the world a Mercedes-driving father. The Lobster (2015), by contrast, is set at a hotel retreat that is part sanitorium, part trans-migratory waiting room, a place where an elegant cast (including Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell) shed their humanity and eventually turn to animals. In both instances, the banality of daily life is full of meaning, and in spite of the scenic isolation, the films are plainly allegories that probe the grey areas in which old social orders are at once inadequate and seemingly intractable. Such anxieties animate much of the Greek ‘weird wave’ – the efflorescence of low-budget films that emerged in the aftermath of a debt crisis that has roiled the country since 2010 – of which Lanthimos has been a de facto standard bearer.

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The Favourite, 2018. Courtesy: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Lanthimos’s most recent film, The Favourite (2018), marks an important departure. While it exemplifies many of the motifs of the broader wave, including his own, it also finds Lanthimos on more gilded terrain as he crosses over, definitively, from the avant-garde to the mainstream. As with his contemporary Steve McQueen, one wonders whether his mordant, often surreal sensibility will contaminate popular cinema, or vice versa. Like his other films, The Favourite, is set in one location: a British country palace during the years of roughly 1704 to 1707. The War of Spanish Succession rages on, Blenheim castle is under construction, the Tories are in near revolt and the childish Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) exercises tenuous power from the estate’s sumptuous chambers. 

While the film partakes in some anachronistic liberties of protocol and parlance, the story itself hews to a series of actual historical episodes catalysed by the arrival of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noble of questionable pedigree, who seeks a position in the house of her cousin, Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz). The latter seems to be both a Queen consort and a steely practitioner of realpolitik, weighing in on the side of the urbanite Whigs during a crucial period in the wake of the Glorious Revolution and in the midst of Scottish Union. But these details are often consigned to the margins – the real action is the jousting for position among the court and all of its lavish accoutrements. The film updates the Baroque campiness of Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons (1988) for audiences accustomed to the elegant textures and interpersonal ruthlessness envisioned by directors such as Cory Finley and Park Chan-wook.

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The Favourite, 2018. Courtesy: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Favourite is captivating and propulsive, animated by committed performances and flamboyant cinematography replete with fish-eye and low-angle shots. It has the feel of a Vermeer painting come to life. But why this episode, and why now? Certainly ‘weird wave’ hallmarks abound. The flat affect and deadpan delivery that typify earlier work by Lanthimos or Athina Rachel Tsangari – another major filmmaker in the informal movement – persist, as does the genre’s thoroughgoing interest in animals and our cruelty towards them. In Dogtooth, the sequestered teens both murder a cat and mimic the snarling and prowling of a dog. In Tsangari’s Attenberg (2010), young women practice an equine gallop and in Panos Koutras’s 2014 queer road-trip story, Xenia, a rabbit appears as an important interlocutor. As expected, riding and shooting punctuate The Favourite, but so do the Queen’s passel of rabbits, which share her bedchamber. And the Prime Minister is rarely seen without his pet duck – sometimes made to race, but usually kept on a leash.

In each of these instances, the directors trace the thin membrane between humans and our animal cousins, exposing chips in our veneer of civility and a bestial nature that dwells just beneath the surface. This current is also illustrated by the weird wave’s handling of sex – at once banal and graphic, these films are thoroughly erotic, but rarely enticing. For the partner-phobic denizens of The Lobster or the weary teens of Xenia and Attenberg, sex is like an alien language that must be learned, a distracting if necessary chore, as in the nature documentaries that populate the latter film. So too in The Favourite, where perfunctory hand-jobs and tactical sexual favours are interspersed with dancing and Privy Council meetings. Queen Anne is seen as an enthusiast of cake and cunnilingus, indulging both with gluttonous zest. Here, as elsewhere in Lanthimos’s work, class and its refinements are depicted as only so much artifice. We are no better – and perhaps worse – than the creatures we torment.

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The Favourite, 2018. Courtesy: Fox Searchlight Pictures

For all that, the lower-budget, youth-centred outings Lanthimos and his peers made in and around 2010 spoke directly to the problems facing millennials as the economy crumbled, and the strictures of heterosexual, bourgeois monogamy seemed like a pointless pantomime. Those films captured a melancholia, the sense of an ending, a breakdown of the social, even linguistic glue that once held western life together. The Favourite, for all its decadent pleasures, only confirms the fecklessness and corruption of the aristocracy, a lesson that hardly bears repeating.  Queen Anne’s persistent gout – a rotting from the bottom up – is but one motif that underscores the point. And it is there that the film ends, with Abigail’s position finally restored in name, but her vocation still tending to the fragile monarch, massaging her legs amid close-ups of rabbits hopping about. The metaphors become ambiguous here, and it is difficult to glean the takeaway from all the preceding yearning and jockeying: the futility of striving, perhaps? Plus ça change?

Either interpretation would be of a piece with the Beckett-worthy irresolution, the spirit of absurdity that pervades much of the weird wave. But taken out of the social context of contemporary Europe, The Favourite, for all of its gloss, doesn’t pack the bite of its precursors. It is, instead, an exemplary anti-period piece, one that does away with the prudish niceties of the Merchant Ivory format with satisfying élan. It seems that, like McQueen, Lanthimos has moved away from making films that are subversive, full stop, in favour of those that deftly subvert Hollywood genres from within the machine. It’s a different game but, for the moment, a transfixing one.

Main image: The Favourite, 2018. Courtesy: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. 

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