The Favourite, (2018): Yorgos Lanthimos, Tralfamadorians, and Rewatching Movies

There are a few things that give me faith in the film industry; Parasite winning best picture, Knives Out making all of the money ever, and the fact that The Farewell even exists at all rank among them. Another is the fact that a film so unabashedly challenging and weird as The Favourite was so embraced by the Academy. The fact that this competed the same year as Vice even and Green Book‘s win though, gives me pause. 

Watching it for this review was my second time watching it, they say that the second time you watch a movie is the first time you actually see all of it, see it for what it is, and it’s only then that you can really review it. Similar to Neil Gaiman’s idea that the second draft is when you get to do what you thought you were doing the whole time you were writing the first. I don’t know if I subscribe to this theory myself regarding watching movies but it is true that I see some movies totally differently on a rewatch. From Rosemary’s Baby to Kill List, sometimes when you can see a movie from beginning to end at once everything changes. Kurt Vonnegut created the idea of the Tralfamadorians, who taught the protagonist of his book, Slaughterhouse 5, (my favorite book) to see the Universe fourth dimensionally. If you contextualize your life within itself everything takes on a brand new context. The thing that makes Vonnegut’s novel so beloved is that throughout Billy Pilgrim’s life of endless tragedy and disappointment and trauma there is still beauty in the life viewed holistically. The miracle of existence and all that. To quote the novel, “everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt”. 

Poo-tee-weet and all that. 

This is how we rewatch movies, we see them fourth dimensionally. 

Now, I always loved The Favourite. Seeing it in the cinema was a pretty transcendent experience. Even for Yorgos Lanthimos, the filmmaking is pretty experimental, it is an aggressive movie and deeply provocative for a period drama. It seems like someone let Yorgos into the genre playpen where all the kids have been instructed to play nice and he just starts breaking shit. It’s delightful. It just astounds me that the film translates as well as it does. I just watched it with my parents and the extent to which they were both engaged was kind of astounding because they’re both kind of prudes? Like, my mother normally insists that I fast-forward any sex scenes, I mean any. So to see her so enraptured to this utterly strange beast was a lovely thing to see. Now, myself being a big fan of Yorgos Lanthimos’ back catalog, I can tell you this is not as abstract as Kinetta, or as intense as The Killing of a Sacred Deer or as provocative as Dogtooth or even as societally implicative as The Lobster. It’s more in the vein of something like Alps, mixing extreme emotional darkness and sadness with absurdity and morbidity. The aspect of The Favourite that is most aided by a fourth-dimensional reading is that emotional darkness. Upon a first time watch of The Favourite, although I really liked it I was struck by what was best articulated by Robbie Collin when he said basically that Yorgos’ extreme emotional distance from the characters with the camera, that Kubrickian sense, made some of the loving scenes and scenes that require emotional warmth lack a certain authenticity. This was a criticism often lobbed at Kubrick in films like The Shining, Barry Lyndon, & Eyes Wide Shut. Here though, on a rewatch, knowing about that astonishing ending, and where each character arc goes, and the backstories that are gradually revealed about each character, mean that suddenly the emotionality of the film opened up to me. I could see the whole story at once and it felt like suddenly all its secrets were being revealed to me and it was opening up like a flower. It also meant that that astonishing ending, which seemed kind of oblique and intellectual to me the first time, suddenly was heartbreaking. 

The performances help a lot in this respect as well and are really the main things that leap out at you about the film. Emma Stone constantly keeps you guessing until the final moments about the true nature of her character, and not only are you guessing the nature of her character, but you’re guessing whether this is who she always was at the start of the film or if the madness of royalty made her this way, or if it’s just the time, and the film never really provides you with a clear answer. Rachel Weisz’s Lady Churchill at one point remarks on a fresh scar that it’d be rather dashing if she was a man and that really defines her whole character. She has had to take on the clothes of masculinity to make it in her world and maintain her agency. It’s no surprise that both actors were nominated for best supporting actress but again the real standout is the Oscar-winning performance by Olivia Coleman. As a Brit I’ve loved Olivia Coleman for a long time, she is somewhat the unchallenged Queen of British TV, ironically. Peep Show, Broadchurch, That Mitchell & Webb Look, she is someone who transitions between drama and comedy seamlessly with homegrown British films like Tyrannosaur under her belt as well. The fact is that The Favourite is in many ways a homegrown British effort that just happens to have Emma Stone in it. It was made by a lot of British production studios, and Yorgos’ first English Language film, The Lobster was made in the UK with a largely British cast. The Favourite also features a lot of British TV gems like Nicolas Hoult from Skins and Mark Gatiss or Sherlock & The League of Gentlemen. Coleman’s experience in both drama and comedy come in handy here as her performance is so full on that it can’t help but make you laugh, (and with lines like that!), but everything is fuelled by dramatic rigor. It’s a line I like to try to walk myself as a filmmaker and writer. Yes, it’s funny, but everyone is treating it and playing it like a drama, it’s just the organic strangeness of the situation that fuels the comedy, it’s just so believable and strange and dramatically compelling. It makes the audience sit there in their seat wondering if they should really be laughing at this. Coleman rides the line between petulant child, sympathetic tragedy, and genuinely loveable, she earned that Oscar. 

It would be a travesty though if we talked about The Favourite and didn’t talk about the world-building. Sandy Powell’s costume design is as usual immaculate but the real winners of the day are the production design of Fiona Crombie & Alice Felton’s set dressing. It captures the opulence and excess of the era that the film is trying so hard to hit at. The whole film juxtaposes the grotesqueries of the upper-class excesses with the deep emotional darkness at the hard of the monarchy. We go from a sequence of a hired peasant being pelted with rotten fruit naked with immediate scenes of vile manipulation and self-serving survival. So when we get into Anne’s chamber and every wall is plastered with ornate paintings and detailed gold outlines and frames, it not only feels like an assault of money but an overcompensation for personal failings and a life that has added up to misery. It feels hollow, as it should. 

Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is also of note here. I first fell in love with his employment of freeform, naturalistic cinematography in indie gem I Am Not A Serial Killer and he’s only moved from strength to strength since then, working with increasingly visionary independent directors such as Andrea Arnold. His work here not only breaks all the rules as he always does but also captures beautifully what life would be like in a world without electric lighting with vast, overpowering, inky blacks. 

All in all, The Favourite might not be Lanthimos’ best film, or indeed his most revolutionary, but it’s his most important and I’ll tell you why. What other film reached as many people and worked on them as well as The Favourite in Lanthimos’ catalog? He has pulled off an extraordinary act of art-terrorism with this picture. Getting a film this strange in front of so many people and with so many Oscar nominations requires a touch so deft as he hadn’t yet demonstrated, and means that his career is set to reach all new pleasures of stratosphere.

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