VIFF 2018: The Favourite

The Favourite  film still via Vancouver International Film Festival.

The Favourite film still via Vancouver International Film Festival.

“Say hello to my little ones,” Queen Anne demands, gesturing towards 17 rabbits in gilded cages that represent her 17 miscarried or stillborn children. So begins The Favourite, the delightful and disturbing new release by Greek Weird Wave director Yorgos Lanthimos. The Favourite follows the goings-on of Queen Anne of England (Olivia Coleman), her close friend and advisor Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s power-hungry cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), as they fuck, vomit, and dance circles around each other. Watching the manoeuvring of two smart and cunning women as they attempt to sway a petulant, volatile ruler is akin to watching someone walk a tightrope: thrilling and always on the cusp of disaster.

The Favourite takes place in the 17th century, but it’s handling of gender and sex is smart and timely. The world of the film is ruled by powerful queer women, passing the Bechdel Test with flying colours. The Favourite addresses sexual assault a number of times, both to reveal what a common occurence it is in women's’ lives and to take aim at the abuses of power by men of the court. I gasped with delight during a scene where Masham (Joe Alwyn) enters Abigails chamber, and she asks if he is going to “rape or seduce her”. When Masham responds defensively that he is a gentleman, Abigail throws her legs open dramatically and quips, “so rape then.” The Favourite comments on our current political landscape by looking backwards.

The satirical terrain of The Favourite presents familiar tropes of the period piece in surreal forms. There is a royal ball, but the dance involves nonsensical lifts and hand waving that mirrors a failed attempt at voguing. There is a classical score in which a woman sings the word “music” over and over again. Political parties argue over an ongoing war with the French, but devote a similar amount of energy to racing their prized ducks through palace halls. Lanthimos eschews the monosyllabic deadpan he famously developed in films like The Lobster or Dogtooth for highly emotive characterizations. This is best embodied by Olivia Coleman’s portrayal of the Queen, which is equal parts needy child and capricious ruler. Moments into the film, the Queen turns to a page and shouts “did you just look at me?” When he shakes his head, she demands that he look at her, at which point she roars “close your eyes!” These moments make it hard to feel bad for the Queen, even as those she trusts endlessly plot to control or undermine her power.

Queen Anne’s childish need for attention, and complete ignorance of the political situation in her country, is a welcome skewering of power. When the Queen demands that Sarah leave parliament to entertain her, Sarah complains to the Queen, “I am not food, you cannot just eat and eat.” While Sarah’s metaphor is aimed at the Queen’s need for attention, it resonates as a more general critique of the vacuum of greed that can come with power. It made me think of a certain American president.