The thesis of The Favourite, the new film by Yorgos Lanthimos, is that it really sucked to be a woman in early eighteenth-century England. This thesis, at its most developed, argues that, in that period, women had to accept that they’d need to do whatever it took in order to acquire and keep power, since their social positions were very precarious in a political system with limited social mobility, an absent middle class, and the dominating cultural belief/legal practice that women were property, even despite a precedent of female national rule. But the film expands on this rather formal reading of female power and positioning to obsess about all the other possible ways it could have been terrible (sometimes in wry, even jokey ways): constantly being raped by men, always being afraid of having to eventually work as a prostitute, being afraid of being captured and then forced into prostitution, contracting various debilitating diseases (scabies for the poor, gout for the rich), and dying from or otherwise being traumatized by risky childbirth. But to add to this litany of real, if over-referenced, hardships, the film has lots of moments where women are beaten up or have things thrown at them or are shoved into giant holes in the ground.So what results, beginning from an initially intelligent and necessary historical-interventionist attitude, is a film that becomes absolutely, voyeuristically fixated on the trauma, anguish, suffering and all around-pain of women. Which is, frankly, kind of weird, because the film has a lot of other highly interesting elements simmering that would be far worthier of development, or even reiteration.
This isn’t to say that The Favourite’s perpetual representation of female suffering is unnecessary to its argument or unrepresentative of such historical intuitions of tyrannical misogyny, including English court life. This is also not to say that the film’s Punch-and-Judy physicality is devoid of symbolic meaning (or, by the way, humor). The film takes place in the court of Queen Anne, circa 1711, and is about the politics of achieving favor from the reigning monarch who will confer and ensure stability and standing and sway the parliamentary decisions that will affect the country—a real historical system of governance that the film understands to be ludicrous, dangerous, and careless, and therefore sends up in as many overt ways as possible. (Numerous scenes of court life are filmed through wide-angle lenses, which warp and twist the screen along a z-axis, reminding the audience as obviously as possible how warped and twisted this particular court life is.) But the movie’s sophisticated sense of both the ridiculousness and vicissitudes of power structures, further articulated (and effectively so) through caricature,hyperbole, violence, excess, and mess, seems ultimately to be a little less responsible, or even ethical, than it could be. It’s a film which gets slightly too carried away in its execution of its clever vision— making its point about excess excessively (see previous mention of “wide angle lens shots”) and boiling genuine tragedy, pain, and despair down to punchlines. Though what’s funny about the film’s overdoing its own symbolism is that it has clear parameters of eighteenth-century symbolic excess laid out for it. Who is name-dropped as a surefire publisher for blackmailing lurid letters but the writer Jonathan Swift?
A defense of this methodology might be to call the film a pastiche, which it definitely is. It’s not a historical costume drama or biopic; it’s an imitation of one. These costumes, for example (thank you, Sandy Powell), are immaculately period-appropriate, but the script is extremely contemporary and full of anachronisms (according to the Oxford English Dictionary, f-bombs weren’t used as expressions of anger until 1929), combining modern sensibilities with a historical setting and a timeless plot (a “beware the ingenue” tale that emulates, as many critics have already pointed out, All About Eve).
The film itself is about a young woman named Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Abigail was formerly a lady but is now looking for employment since falling into obscurity, an obscurity caused by being sold into marriage to a German man by her debtor father. She arrives, single but disheveled and filthy (having been accidentally shoved out of her carriage by a man attempting to fondle her backside as she exits) at the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and asks for employment from her cousin, Lady Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), a noblewoman and companion to the Queen. Abigail is sent to work in the kitchens, where she is bullied by some fellow servants and decides to turn her life around and somehow climb into the Queen’s good graces.She maneuvers an accident with lye into an opportunity. Traveling into the woods to make an herbal poultice for her wound, she makes another for the gout-suffering Queen’s bruised and swollen legs. Thus she begins a process of attempting to ingratiate herself into the Queen’s favor and correspondingly elevate her status. This puts her into conflict with Sarah, the Queen’s favorite courier, secret lover, and political manipulator, who bends Queen Anne towards the will of the Whigs, embroiling the country in war and enraging the Tory party leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult). But there is nothing Abigail won’t do to achieve this place, including spy for Harley, seduce the Queen, marry a baron (Joe Alwyn), and destroy Sarah. The story is billed, in the trailers, as a battle between two masterful manipulators, but the film is truly about Abigail, who does not simply want to make a living, but to live large.
Stone does a handy job unfurling Abigail’s desperation, but the film asks her to go too far. It boils her ambition down past exploitation to a kind of evil. Atone point she grinds one of the Queen’s treasured rabbits under her heel until it squeals just because she can. This is a random, useless moment for the film,which until now had crafted a clear, tragicomic (if needlessly sadistic)argument about the lengths all non-royal women must go to become truly secure in their positions. Lanthimos, though, seems loath to pass up an opportunity to turn animals into metaphors for the supposedly human (if anyone doubts this,let me direct you to The Lobster), and this moment is the film’s showiest way of illuminating how Abigail is actually harming the protractedly-deteriorating Queen.
The rabbits symbolically constitute Queen Anne; she has seventeen—one for each of the babies she bore who died (from miscarriages, stillbirths, or deaths at a few days old). She explains to the sympathetic-presenting Abigail that when each one of her babies died, so did a part of her. The rabbits, named after and commemorating these children, are what she has in their place; therefore, the film offers, she is not a woman, but parts of a woman with rabbits filling in the gaps. Indeed, Queen Anne’s body is falling apart (plus gout, she has lactose intolerance and acid reflux and probably some other GI stuff), and so is her kingdom (pulled in two by a fractious parliament and Civil War). The MPs also have animal counterparts: ducks who flap around in indoor races and walk through the grounds on leashes and whose brethren sometimes get shot by Lady Sarah and Abigail (both of whom, by the way, are horses; running their own race, farther and harder than any of the men in Parliament—and crushing others under their feet). This ongoing theme is more than a “body politic” metaphor; it’s a representation of a malfunctioning ecosystem. The kingdom-system is filled with people who are themselves animals, but these animals have their dynamics thrown off (they are too much in competition, too self-interested, and they are all prey) and that’s why the ecosystem is broken. There is a rabbit (she’s also called “a badger”) installed on the throne, generating not children but vulnerability, and that’s why the kingdom is broken. Or so says the film. The film’s last shot, which is just a rapid-fire superimposition of rabbits appearing everywhere, suggests that the rabbits are truly about to take over, and maybe even punish the manipulative Abigail, whose enlarged face they overtake onscreen.
Colman, as Queen Anne, excels at bringing immense depth to a character who seems written to be a weak-minded, shrill, dyspeptic cartoon (except in the scene when she tells Abigail about her failed childbirths and her tenderness for rabbits, in which she is clearly supposed to be pitiful and sentimental,though Colman has Anne try to have a stiff-upper-lip in this moment—once again, making her performance reach far past the parameters she is written to have). And Rachel Weisz is steely and terrifying as Sarah realizes that she’s being out-masterminded and fights back.
The men in The Favourite, the film really labors to point out, don’t labor at all. They have a grand old time being men (and being far more secure in status, power, and wealth, than women).Most of their extracurricular activities and dandied appearances are excessive,gaudy, and generally stupid. But they get to do this; the women don’t. The women are the ones actually expending themselves, all the time. The film has duly been praised, for showing a power struggle between women who are trying to catch the eye of another woman— and yes, the fact that no one cares about the opinions of men makes the film a lot more refreshing.
It’s a shame, then, that The Favourite is a bit too irresponsible and ignorant about women to actually make a feminist argument. The fact that all these women are different degrees of insufferable or terrible is in part what makes this film so rich, and the fact that the whole thing is really just a dirty bitch fight makes it fun and actually aware of women as complex characters. But it would have been useful if these women could have just been left alone, as complicated people but simple bitches (by “bitch” I refer to all the women in this movie, who are either fierce vixens or subservient creatures—both meanings of the word are at play,here) without insisting that their bodily experiences made them become this way, or otherwise signposting their traumas to sympathize, understand, or punish them. The film’s biggest pitfall is that it mistakes being aware of female suffering as being the same thing as producing a feminist work. It doesn’t need to do this. Sometimes women can just be terrible, and it’s not un-feminist just to leave it at that.