The bristling style of Yorgos Lanthimos certainly alienates a large portion of film-goers, but in the world of independent and avante-garde devotees, he’s unmissable. His 2009 film Dogtooth brought him initial notoriety, a story of grown children held captive by their tyrannical father, unaware of the society that exists beyond their gates, and of the belief that losing an incisor will grant them freedom. This premise sounds meaty and implies thrills. However, the puzzling execution mystifies rather than indulges. Robotic dialog, stilted performances, and jarring camera work responds to the the expected conventions with the atmosphere of a subtly unsettling dream with foreign logic, serving to alienate rather than permit complicity. Of course, you are meant to feel alienated. Just as you are meant to feel oddly beguiled and guarded during 2016’s The Lobster, an ostensibly comedic film about the unloved being turned into animals.
In all Lanthimos films, vulnerable protagonists rebel against oppressive strangleholds, whether they be totalitarian systems of social control or interpersonal power struggles. Constraining his characters in bizarre, rule-driven environments, we become enchanted by the curious specifics of them while never losing sight of their horror, whether blatant or implied. The peak of his rigidly established norms came last year with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, where the punishments were more severe than ever. A family member must die in order for the rest to live. How unusual, then, that this year’s The Favourite pivots sharply from the established path, as Lanthimos freely discards some of his more identifiable trademarks in favor of melodrama and theatrics. But considering the note that The Killing of a Sacred Deer left off on, his change in approach stands as a precisely timed and savvy career move. Another likelihood might be this: different screenwriter, different director.
Deborah Davis began the screenplay for The Favourite in 1998 knowing very little of Queen Anne and her relationship with Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill. The story quickly evolved into a triangular character piece, and though much of the erotic content can be attributed to speculation, the rivalry between the women finds a heavy basis in documented fact. One might question why Lanthimos would be suited to direct a historical drama based on the factual record when he’s shown himself to be a master of the implausible and the ambiguous. The answer, of course, lies in his other mastery— portraying the fight for and against complete power.
Both Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz return from Lanthimos’ previous film, The Lobster, as Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, respectively. An arrangement between the two has been firmly set, with Churchill acting as confidant, advisor, and lover to the emotionally unstable queen, who is beset by common ailments of a dwindling monarch (gout and depression). Churchill’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), has lost her station after being gambled away to a German by her disgraced father. Arriving at the castle penniless, she slowly ascends into the court and into Anne’s favor as Sarah faces increasing criticism from the opposition party in Parliament. From this intrusion comes the much expected back-and-forth we tend to see in our director’s work, and it is the dynamic between the three actresses that bears that load beautifully. The particulars are, otherwise, markedly different.
Lanthimos, this time working from another’s script, employs a much quicker pace to scenes in order to accomodate the energy of Davis and co-writer Tony MacNamara’s dialog. A good deal of irony can be read in the fact that his previous films take place in the modern day and contain stiff and mannered conversations, while his historical film has characters firing venomous barbs with sardonic wit, like Mean Girls of the 17th century, a complete diversion from one of his most recognized calling cards. And from this air of resentment and passion comes a significantly altered photographic sensibility. Tending to focus on precise framing and jarring compositions, he goes off course by invoking the powers of Kubrick by way of meticulous costumes, sets, and baroque lighting. The cinematography, rather than homaging the obvious Barry Lyndon, borrows more from A Clockwork Orange, as evidenced by the repeat use of fisheye lenses and overt, stylized camera movements. Coinciding with these visual similarities are harpsichord-filled classical pieces on the soundtrack and a general air of sexual depravity throughout. Along with the feverish decadence conjured by Kubrick and Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, Lanthimos uses the lachrymose isolation from the Kubrick-King pairing in The Shining in the form of cavernous, labyrinthian production design and drawn out crossfades between scenes to both suspend and elongate the passage of time.
The most impressive takeaway from The Favourite is the confirmation of Lanthimos’ versatility. When the time comes to alter his typical method for the sake of story, he graciously does so. In this the case, loosening his incisive grip to allow the necessary lunacy to manifest on the screen. Technically, this is his first film not containing some unexplained, improbable forces that codify the lives and actions of his characters and bring about the story. Instead, the catalysts are the oft seen adversarial forces of longing, insecurity, and resentment. The Favourite both appeals to and bends his inclinations in many noticeable ways, making it his most realistic film also his most adventurous. | Nic Champion