the favourite (2018)
Societies, nations, kingdoms and conflicts. How our standing in the world comes to dictate the existence we enjoy (or deplore) in this life. How we do posture to gain that favour that might change our standing, might end our conflicts and ease our woes. How we prickle our quills and soothe our nerves, and how much of this prickling and soothing is done at the behest of our carefully laid plans for favour. Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite sees the construction of a hierarchy as the farce of not only maintaining it, but of moving about within it, of influencing and assuaging it. Lanthimos shows us a constant stream of scenarios in which our various characters either become cross or soothing based on their desired manipulation toward their human target. Those who cannot find their favour based on these methods alone choose subjugation and submission as their last resort toward improving their station. It is a cold existence, finding little to no humanity in the frigid prostrating and emotionless exchanges of tribute, even a war in which the future of the nation and the entire society (not to mention the lives of many thousands) hangs at the stake is a meaningless abstraction, an afterthought that is considered in the same arena as whether or not to attend a party. In Lanthimos’ standout scene, perhaps of the entire picture, the rationalization made by his queen to equate continuing their war against France with dinner plans puts a wry jab toward the aristocracy’s ability to govern, as well as human beings in their ability to empathize with situations outside of their own experience. Whether naive in its simplicity or poignant in its accuracy, one thing remains clear, the film sees the human condition as an animal caged at the whim and mercy of a tyrannical child whose truncated maturation destroys lives while bringing out the worst in those it spares, or maybe that’s just England for you.
What Lanthimos captures best is the dark realization, especially in Stone’s character, that the bending over isn’t what counts, it’s who one is bending over for that makes all the difference. The ruling class’s dehumanization here renders them incapable of emoting and turns human connection into a willful humiliation so the other can get their jollies. In no scene is it more amusingly played out than on Stone’s wedding night. Her new husband eagerly awaits the union’s consummation, yet Stone is preoccupied with her next move in the chess game of life to gain favour. She misreads his desire for connection as a desire to be pleasured and haphazardly performs the act with little notice (and single handedly). Lanthimos doesn’t ever communicate it to be their fault, by the way, we’re not meant to read these people as villains who have a choice in the matter, but that’s the currency by which their survival depends on trading. It’s to the film’s credit that we never see an alternative, and places us closer to the isolated experience than we could have otherwise. Much is made of the war with the French and the landowners and battle, yet we’re never taken away from the bourgeois trappings of our single-setting to witness any of it at all. The only time we do leave and delve into a world beneath the Queen and her royal halls is when Weisz’s character, cast out in Stone’s usurping plot, finds herself waking in a brothel somewhere miles away. Here, Lanthimos demonstrates for us caveat to hierarchy, and all constructs of society, in that they are as strong as the collective belief in them and fall completely apart in the presence of the nonbeliever. The formal misstep in The Favourite are the bizarre wide-angle lenses, rather than pleasingly spread the action out over a wide frame, Lanthimos is content to lens distortion and some odd pans amongst the spaces, while the distanciation is effective in many other elements of the film and adds to the farcical nature of the events, this in and of itself does not account for their overuse. In contrast the more flat close-ups ( though they are sparing) let the beauty of the color palette, settings and stars ring true. There is great richness in the sequences taking place at night, lit by the flames of torches and candles, cinematically labour-intensive and it does not go unnoticed. The Favourite, like all great comedies of manner and propriety, is at its best when highlighting the absurdity of the individual trying to exist within the conformity of a system; our lead characters endure small victories and small tragedies, yet the key word in this is small. Never are we made to think that the trials and contests of our players are anything but ultimately insignificant.
The caged rabbits go about their daily routine, their primping and preening, their rest and activity; their worth selected by what void they fill in the Queen’s life, elevated to the status of royal rabbits (though they’re likely unaware of it) by virtue of her loss in life and they’re none the wiser. As Stone raises herself above her station, fights with all of the most vicious mental tools she can muster, and ultimately wins the prize, she begins to commit the error of all those who strive in life; she seems to believe she’s fundamentally transcended some degree of existence by doing so. By the film’s conclusion, she behaves as one immune to the frivolity which once ruled her and, as a newly crowned Queen in her own mind, can say and do as she pleases, make others suffer as she sees fit. The darkest and most humorous of Lanthimos’ conclusions come here as Stone, in the film’s final shot, is reduced to where she began, crawling to one who has power and dominion over herself. She comes to identify now more with those caged rabbits, the ones she had an instant ago been critical of and punishing toward, than any Queen. For this is the punchline of hierarchy, and the existential joke of favour, for to become the favourite is fleeting and easily lost, to become the favourite has rewards that are transient at best. We have no more raised our station than the sun had been hidden by a cloud, or the moon had risen. We are, just as we’d always been; poor, starving and longing for more.