Yorgos Lanthimos loves to make his audience uncomfortable. If there was any doubt of this, one needs only to look how he starts his films -- Dogtooth begins with a scene depicting explicit sexual intercourse; The Lobster opens with a scene of a woman shooting a donkey; The Killing of a Sacred Deer begins with a real beating heart filling the screen for an extended period of time. By throwing his audience off, and by upending their equilibrium, Lanthimos is able to retain control over their cinematic experience.
The Favourite's opening is rather tame in comparison to the others, but it does catch you off guard. Its odd opening credits, spaced out in a way that is both pleasing to the eye and visually jarring, immediately cutting to a luscious opening shot of the Queen's extravagant bedroom throws you for a loop. In comparison to his other films, this cut may seem relatively normal, but Lanthimos is still toying with us. Much like he does throughout the entire film, Lanthimos is setting up chess pieces for us in the smallest ways.
The Favourite follows two women in the early 18th century — Lady Sarah (played by Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (played by Emma Stone) — and their attempts to win the affection of the ailing Queen Sarah. Both women go to extreme lengths to cement their status as the Queen’s confidant and lover, resulting in everything from political maneuvering to attempted murder.
It is important to say that The Favourite is easily Lanthimos's most accessible film. The Greek director has been anything except straightforward when it comes to filmmaking, and while he retains the ambiguity and distinct artistry that helps set his work apart from other films, The Favourite isn't obtuse. It has a very straightforward story, distinct characters, and a linear narrative.
Still, when the credits rolled people in my theater were confused. A few let out an audible "What?" while others just shook their heads in disbelief. So, even in his most accessible film, Lanthimos manages to remain an enigma.
To me, though, The Favourite is unique, but not difficult to decipher. While Dogtooth played with odd ideas of language and meaning, and while The Lobster did its best to be anything but understandable, Lanthimos is telling a very clear story of power and control here. The battle to be Queen Anne's "favorite" leads to an interesting discussion of what power is — more importantly, it’s a discussion of what attaining power leads to, especially for those who are not ready to wield it. So while Lanthimos utilizes his trademark visual abstraction and dour narrative ambiguity at the end of the film, its underlying meaning is surprisingly straightforward.
Complementing the narrative of this film is the dizzying visual style. By utilizing fish-eye lenses, distinctly luscious production design, and gorgeous, naturalistic lighting The Favourite sets itself apart from other period pieces. It feels distinctly modern while simultaneously reveling in its period-piece aesthetic. This dynamic visual style calls back to the decadence of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon while keeping a foot firmly placed in the modern era.
Furthermore, the script is a triumph. Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite is equal parts funny and chilling. Some of the most memorable lines of the year come from this film; words are thrust around like spears, and each character has their own unique speaking style. Abigail balances regal speech with modern cussing, tossing around f-bombs while alone. Lady Sarah’s arrogant attitude and “tough-love” dialogue inform a genuine affection for Queen Anne, even if her well-meaning intentions are soured by her brusqueness.
To put it simply, The Favourite is a triumph. Lush production design, beautiful cinematography, hilarious and powerful performances, and razor-sharp dialogue all help contribute to the success of this film. Lanthimos's direction is the cherry on top -- the unique flavor to this delectable sundae.
I'd hazard a guess that even if you disliked Lanthimos's previous projects, you will like this one. More importantly, though, its discussion of power and servitude is one that is oddly resonate to our current political situation, and it is a film that is worth analyzing even after we move into the new year.
“THE FAVOURITE” ★★★★★
written by DEBORAH DAVIS & TONY McNAMARA || directed by YORGOS LANTHIMOS
Rated R || 119 MIN || Released 21 December 2018