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Venice: Ruthlessness Rules in Yorgos Lanthimos' Tragicomic "The Favourite"

As unorthodox as ever, Yorgos Lanthimos' auteur-style has finally conquered genre.
Barbara Wurm
“Are you going to rape me or seduce me?” “I am gentleman.” “Rape then.” With clear-cut, witty dialogues such as this one—performed by the fantastic cast in a shrewd, straight-forward and incredibly speedy way—Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest, The Favourite, for many a viewer was their favorite of this year’s Venice competition, on both sides: the Lanthimos-fans as well as -sceptics. This was not surprising, given the film’s high entertainment impact as well as its major momentum. In the end, it got the Grand Jury Prize, but would certainly have deserved a Golden Lion, because this period drama set in the early 18th century is equally splendid in its precise visual composition and breathless editing as it is in the handling of an unsurpassable rhetorical verve. A queer Queen Anne is the main (sulkily ailing) protagonist, with rivaling duo (cousins) of Sarah Churchill (a.k.a. Lady Marlborough) on the one hand and the fallen-noblewoman-now-maid Abigail Hill on the other, both surrounding and courting Her Majesty’s pitiful soul (and body) until they end up fighting each other ferociously. The topic calls for attention, too, since it is the queen’s intimates who run her politics, not the sovereign herself (who for her part is turned into a tool by Sarah, then Abigail): The Favourite is a screwball comedy on the tragical loss of good sense in times of weak leaders, egomaniac influencers and competitive consulting. A devilish funny game of thrones.
This film is a masterpiece, with a feverish love for stylization and eccentric details (costumes, wigs, rouge; duck races, dove dances, rabbit family constellations) and yet the boosting, weird cold-bloodedness one would but expect from someone who once had his heroes obsessively reenact crime scenes (Kinetta, 2005), explored the surface and abyss of a sadist kinship relations (Dogtooth, 2009), played in and produced a film of similar gender stir-up as The Favourite, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2010), had members of a conspiratorial group perform the recently deceased (Alps, 2011), moved from a native Greek cast to an international one (including Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman) in order to force singles into partnership within a 45 day deadline (transforming them into animals, if not—The Lobster, 2015). In other words, Lanthimos is a provocative filmmaker who, after having become an auteur of his very own kind with somnambulistic walks along the border of psycho-liberation and socio-constraint, in 2017 shocked his audience with a Haneke-esque funny game presented in a non-Hanekeesque form: The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a surreal, sometimes even comedic horror movie, in which he executed yet another deliberate, violent decomposition of the bourgeois family, with a suppressed class envy running in the midst of it.  
The Favourite, whose ‘family’ unit to be (self-)destroyed is of an aristocratic or rather royal kind, comprising the inner circle of the queen, is Lanthimos’ first attempt in directing only; the script was written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Nevertheless, the Greek philosopher’s-a.k.a.-filmmaker’s idea that humans live on this planet in order to con- and detest each other happily continues. Just like in real life (especially in the actual White House version of it, with its abundant upper-class ties), there lurks an intrigue in every flattery, every comfort is rooted in relentlessness, every reaching-out-for-the other (‘liaison’) is an act of self-establishing. Manipulation is the sole common denominator; relationships are games, no more, no less, sometimes vicious, sometimes voluptuous, always joyful. Power and love, sensibility and sense, class-rivalry and battle-of-the-sexes-and-generations and their utter subversion: (post-)restoration Great Britain entangled in the War of the Spanish Succession is not only the perfect setting of Lanthimos’ universal exploration of the human soul, but also the perfect background for being read allegorically, i.e. as a comment on the so cheaply performed palace intrigues of today (they call it the Trump era), the networks of power, the hidden violence, and the concealed drives like anger, hatred, malice, and lust. (On the ruthlessness of this business see also Errol Morris’ convesation with Steven K. The Devil Bannon in American Dharma, screened in Venice out of competition.)  
The castle, around which the hilariously pitiful sovereign (Olivia Colman) is being pushed in a wheelchair, at first by her favorite and intimate Sarah (Rachel Weisz), then by her new favorite, the servant Abigail (Emma Stone), appears as a chessboard—an ultimate playground for moves predictable and unexpected alike. There’s suspense in every encounter (especially between the queen and Sarah, and between Sarah and Abigail), threatening to unbalance the assumed inclination of the scales. Just as we are sure that in fact Her Majesty’s permanently changing moods determine the events—from grumpy to frantic and back to capricious and cranky—it turns out that Anne (addressed with the pet name “Mrs. Morley” by Sarah) is actually being played by her subjects. And vice versa, since she can be mean as well. Decision-making thus turns into a clown’s act in a circus. The more irrational the reasoning, the fiercer the orders, with an intonation often thoroughly discomforting while also lustful (the word “cunt” has probably never been used so delightfully and at the same time condemning as in Lanthimos’ film).
Speaking of which, The Favourite, no doubt, also functions as a quirky deconstruction of an ever more frazzling #MeToo-debate, because one, we are dealing with female homosexual couples (and homo- as well as hetero-triangles), and what is more, two, the sexual acts played out on the Queen first by Lady Marlborough, then by her substitute, starting from sick-swollen-leg-rubbing via nipple zone into fingers and tongues in holes, thus, in the queen’s very four-poster bed, do not question sexual consent as such, but rather the idea of it: the underlying concept of man’s (and woman’s) free will. As a matter of fact, the courtesy games performed by these three impulsive rogues—men, except for (Robert) Harley, Speaker of the House of Commons, play a rather pathetic subordinate role here anyway—suggest the absence of unemotional moves as such. As said above, every gesture and touch, every kiss and fuck just like all strategic and political moves might as well be due to the will to power only, the result of a long chain of sheer mathematical calculation. The lesbianism of The Favourite therefore does not evoke the ugly, vengeful resentment triggered by alleged sexual assault cases like Asia Argento or Avital Ronel, but brings the question back to power structures, class awareness and strategic ego-surviving (Abigail’s Kriemhild-like revenge is caused by her social fate as a fallen noblewoman in the beginning). Rather than functioning as a setback in gender thinking, his latest film also underlines Lanthimos’ strive for a fast-forward general gender role subversion. Just like Greek love back then, Greek cinema today is the vanguard of establishing a new imagination of (sexual) pairing and ruling.
We thus find Yorgos Lanthimos’ tragicomedian court jester cinema on the crossroads of ancient and Shakespearian drama on the one hand, and 21st century media world on the other, in which the decision whether yet another absurdist Twitter message is being sent off or not seems to depend on, say, Melania’s facial expression or Rex Tillerson’s digestive system. In fact, the film displays an early version of social networking. While England is at war with France, and the Tories n’ Whigs balance pros n’ cons about raising taxes for militarization’s sake, the Queen hardly ever leaves her royal chambers and talks to her seventeen rabbits instead, giving each one of them the names of her dead children and lamenting about her bad health. Lady Sarah doesn’t fancy so much the bunnies but takes care of all state affairs instead. Her love for Anne feels real, and yet both seem to have an all too clear understanding of how much the other’s strength depends on their own approval. When Abigail conquers the place and pretends to love the fur ears as much as the Queen’s orgasms—in an interview, both Colman and Stone declare how much they enjoyed having sex with each other—the affairs pick up pace and Lanthimos’ drive goes gliding—in eight chapters—from nightmarish visions to ultimate fun, from “Jonathan Swift that son of a bitch” via “It is fun to be a queen sometimes” to yet another translation of the underlying sadomasochism of it all: “We must have the duck now” says one, while the other will soon step on the most beloved rabbit.   
As unorthodox as ever, Yorgos Lanthimos' auteur-style has finally conquered genre. He is assisted by a brilliant team, the wide-angle mastery of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the bare-knuckle editing of Yorgos Mavropsaridis, the subtle sound design of Johnnie Burn, as well as Fiona Crombie’s and Sandy Powell’s sets and costumes. The acting is royal if not divine, the crown being worn by the now one and only Olivia Colman. A superb actress, no points deducted. The jury saw that, too. Long live the queen. And now “turn off the tears,” for ruthlessness rules.


Festival CoverageVeniceVenice 2018Yorgos Lanthimos
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