The Farce of Imperial Pageantry In Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite

By Alci Rengifo

We begin with an evening walking through the artificial cities of the Fox Studios lot, accompanied by a Turk who can read a star map, graced with a name that has a royal origin. She inevitably helps us find our way among the maze of this place. It is but a day after the republic has cast its vote in another election embodying well these mad times. We walk through the false New York streets of the lot, nestled within the west side of Los Angeles. Like power, the city within this city is but an illusion. Such are the perfect conditions to enter the world of The Favourite, the new film by Greek enfant terrible Yorgos Lanthimos. Like his ancestors, Luis Bunuel, Tristan Tzara and other practitioners of the surreal arts, Lanthimos captures this era in civilization better than almost any other director. This new work reaches back into the past, yet has a timeless force in its dissection and sheer mocking of the pageantry of empire.

Lanthimos’s debut 2009 film, Dogtooth, about a Greek family where two daughters are kept strictly hidden from the world, their father conveniently deforming language to mislead their perceptions, is a mockery of totalitarian repression. His 2011 follow up, Alps, uses the idea of people who pretend to be a deceased loved one visiting a grieving family. The ritual of mourning is exposed as a mere decoration for deep pain. For his debut in English, Lanthimos tackles our sense of romance and true love with The Lobster. I dare say this is the greatest cinematic romance of the last decade. Set in a dystopia where those who are single must find a partner at a secluded getaway or face being turned into animals, it is defiant in insisting love must develop organically and according to its own rhythms.

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Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite

It would appear Lanthimos has always been working his way towards The Favourite, a viciously funny take on the aesthetics of the costume drama. It is set in a 1700s England where the plump and sickly Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is overseen by Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), a strict enforcer who insists the crown continue to wage war against the French. To the palace arrives a mud-stained Abigail (Emma Stone), given by her father to a German after losing her in a bet, Abigail also happens to be Lady Sarah’s cousin. She is put to work in the kitchen, but soon she begins to plot her rise by slowly winning the Queen’s affections. This will unleash a war of jealousies and power plays where the most savage wit will win.

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In a barbarous stew, a bathing Lady Sarah

Much has been written about Lanthimos’s dark, and at times bloody sense of humor, where human codes of conduct easily break down. In The Favourite the codes and manners of the aristocrats degrade into a barbarous stew, but barbarous in the way imperial classes tend to behave — decadence decorated by class. There is almost nothing as tragically comic as power. What a fate to have control over the state and others, yet be a joke yourself. The world today feels ruled by the mad. With his new film Lanthimos dabbles in a tradition going back to two classical Romans, Petronius and Juvenal. These two satirists gleefully chortled with bitter irony at the imperial society of their day. They did it so well, in fact, that their works feel more contemporary than any heavy, ten ton work by some historian. Instead of a serious scholar scribbling away by a desk, it is easy to imagine Juvenal, clinching his toga, walking down the street and observing with a merciless eye when he writes in The Sixteen Satires, “Do you see that distinguished lady? She has the perfect dose for her husband- old wine with a dash of parching toad’s blood.” Juvenal could be writing about our political crises when he screeches, “Honesty’s praised, but honest men freeze. Wealth springs from crime.” Petronius would add in his Satyricon, “What good are the laws where money is king?”

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Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives

The Favourite invites us to walk through the palace halls of 1700s England with a critical eye accompanied by a grin. All human passions materialize within these lush halls, extravagant furniture and dreamy candles casting their harvest moon glow. Yet almost from the beginning, Lanthimos distorts our notions of a period piece. Abigail rides in a carriage and a lustful man sitting in front of her begins to furiously masturbate. She is thrown into the mud, a hand quickly grabbing her posterior. Caked in mud she arrives at the royal palace, at first appearing as not much of a threat in the eyes of the coldly focused Lady Sarah. As in Lanthimos’s previous film, last year’s eerie The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the camera tracks down halls, following characters as if the audience member were a voyeur. If The Lobster guided us through a futuristic world of lonely hearts, The Favourite is full of powdered faces content (or appearing content) in imperial decadence. In one of the film’s great early sequences, aristocrats cheer and go mad within the royal halls as they race ducks. Lanthimos slows down the image, so we can bask in the surreal details. An aristocrat named Godolphin (James Smith) will constantly appear with his prized duck, walking him as one would a poodle. In a later sequence a naked man in a wig will become the target of party goers aiming fruits at him, creating a colorful splatter. The Queen seems to collect revelers the way Philip II of Spain was known to collect dwarves in his own court. She herself is obsessed with her pet rabbits, which are her only true loves. In a world where humans are hard to trust, the pets offer a warmth that is missing.

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Winning the affections of the Queen

The rituals of court become exposed as hilarious posturing. Lanthimos goes beyond the semi-Punk tone of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, where the court of Louis XVI dances to “Hong Kong Garden” by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Here Lady Sarah picks a man down the line and the two begin moving like a mix of Pulp Fiction and swing dancing. Like the Dadaists poking fun at the absurdities of language, Lanthimos is taking the old world of these ruffled dresses, high heels and extravagant wigs to dissect royalty itself. In his fun book about the French Revolution, Vive la Revolution: A Stand up History of the French Revolution, Mark Steel rolls his eyes at how even today, when the Queen of England travels and uses a restroom at a lavish resort or locale, the area is closed off several hours, lest the common folk get a whiff that the monarch is but merely human. Surely Lanthimos must be influenced in his work by what has happened in his home country. Following the 2009 economic collapse, Greece has been a laboratory of economic fantasy, dashed hopes, radical political ideals of the left and right, with a population not sure what is truth, yet certain doom is approaching. . .

To read the rest of Rengifo’s essay, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/farce-of-imperial-pageantry-the-favourite/

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