Yorgos Lanthimos — one of Greece’s finest cinematic exports — is transfixed with the way he can break the world. He does this in two major ways. He firstly deconstructs how humans behave in very bizarre, almost archaic ways. He then displays his results to his crowds, and he is met with either adoration or repulse. I don’t think you can ever meet a “sorta” Lanthimos fan. It just cannot happen. You are either all in with his sensibility, or you are as distant as can be. With all of that having been said, let me mark my stance very clearly. Yorgos Lanthimos is without question one of the strongest directors working today. No one is painting human behaviours in such an animalistic and cartoonish way that they become more human than ever before. It’s a powerful paradox that can be found in virtually all of his works.
Then we have The Favourite, which is definitely his most normal film (but only barely). This All About Eve inspired tale reflects on real events in a highly bastardized way. Queen Anne is a famous royal figure for her deterioration during the final years of her reign, and her rumoured sexual relationships with her servants. The Favourite puts these ideas into full effect. Here is a Queen who has very little to live for. Almost everyone she has ever loved has abandoned her, whether it’s royalty pushing her aside for politics, colleagues undermining her for being a woman, or her offspring for all having passed away in countless different ways. Queen Anne has descended into a state of permanent hysteria in The Favourite, and every second is unpredictable.
Olivia Coleman creates an entire spectrum of emotions, all stemming from the pressures she has had to endure. Her unintentional hilarity is easy for us to laugh at, because we are not in her presence. Her dark states of sorrow are almost impossible to tolerate, because they are only the kinds of cries you hear behind closed doors. That’s partially what makes this film so damn funny. You feel like you shouldn’t be here for any of this, and yet you get the entire floor show. Coleman might make Queen Anne of Great Britain a complex cartoon, but that’s only because she is representing the universe Lanthimos has created perfectly.
The Favourite is as much of a living political cartoon as it is a breathing painting. We are getting all sides of royalty in this brilliant amalgamation of what they see, and what outsiders see. Everything is naturally lit, with pastel colours staining each and every surface. This honestly is a renaissance painting having come to life, and is the best example of this since Stanley Kubrick innovated this idea decades ago. The film is absolutely gorgeous to look at an experience. The content, however, is on the complete other side of town. Vulgar language is a must. Absurd activities are always in the schedule (including duck racing, pelting jesters with fruit, and more). They can be as flashy as they want, but their buffoonish behaviour is all we need to know. The Favourite is a masterful satire of absurdist proportions, because it takes itself as a film seriously, but understands its subjects as the hooligans that they are.
The main three players are who are in charge of this insane game. Coleman, as discussed, is a delirious Queen Anne who is on her final legs (literally). Her main go-to for a piece of mind, semblance, and salvation is Sarah Churchill (played magnificently by Rachel Weisz), who is unafraid of using the bluntest language possible to get Queen Anne to understand her directly. Then there’s the new girl, Abigail Masham (performed by a magnetic Emma Stone). Abigail has had a rough life, and is working her way up from the bottom of the pack (despite having been a member of royalty herself, until her idiot father bet her away). Her optimism and charm makes her a likeable figure, especially up against the frigid Churchill. However, it is extremely easy to get conned in this film, by anybody and everybody. This isn’t exactly a mystery or thriller, but you can still be misled by wits here.
A lot of the film is based on deception, and most of it is for our entertainment. Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) has a plan to play Queen Anne like a fiddle for his own political gains. Like Abigail was gambled away in a card game, and money is placed on waterfowl, politics and compassion are manipulated like just any old act of leisure (despite the consequences). That’s why seeing all of this in a hyper-cynical, satirical light is fascinating. We can appreciate how much is truly being wagered away by gawking at the audacity of it all. When we see the two women vying for Queen Anne’s approval (one, a newcomer, and one an established next-in-line), this is more than just a popularity contest. This is the fate of many people who are directly involved.
The Favourite loves to use symbolism, as well. Vomit is a primary metaphor here, especially based on who is projecting it and when. It can represent a body’s betrayal of self, the harm of another, or self sabotage through neglect. Each subject is different, and all of these biological reactions are necessary (of course, because Lanthimos and company made damn sure that they were). As Queen Anne deteriorates, her two women are at each other’s throats, and the fate of England is stuck in limbo, things cannot afford to be safe. There is blood, self harm, puss and dirt, all flowing and seeping through snide remarks and c-word usage.
Then there are those darling little rabbits Queen Anne owns; seventeen bunnies, one for each of the children she lost. They are caged, like Queen Anne. Her small glimpses of joy are usually when these rabbits are free to roam around. By the end of the film, with one of the great scenes of 2018, we see a whole wave of superimpositions of two faces, and all seventeen rabbits hopping. It is a lengthy, experimental piece of extreme stupefaction. Nothing makes sense. All of it hurts. This is a mental hell only imaginable to Dante Alighieri. This is after hidden intentions have been realized, with only a sliver of sanity remaining in order to pick up on it. Perhaps, using a title for only one’s own selfish benefit was not the best idea after all; you can be trapped forever, with nowhere to hide when discovered.
The Favourite is best described by its creative credits formatting. The spacing between letters is determined by the entire length of the longest word in order for every line to match up perfectly. It is a neat idea in theory, but a chaotic practice in execution. Everything in this film is gorgeous, yet hideous. Funny, yet devastating. Serious, yet insane. Like Queen Anne has to decide between two favourites, the film bounces between being a bitter commentary on the upper classes, and rendering an emotional tale of deception. It is rarely one or the other, but it is almost always both at once. There is almost no definitive way to explain this film in short if you love it, but it is almost too easy to explain in one word if you hate it (ugly, weird, crazy, one of those I’m sure). For those this film leaves an impression on, it is a box that never ceases to have contents to unpack. Lanthimos is a master at making absurdist comedies, especially because the amount of detail is never ending. The Favourite is a riot at first glance, and a universe when you stick around. Who would expect that in a film where lobsters are raced to determine which one will be cooked for dinner?
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.