The Favourite: Condescending Sympathy

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

** (out of 4)

WARNING: Spoilers in review.

In the history of film, the motif of female rivalry has provided fodder for showbiz satires (All About Eve), Westerns (Johnny Guitar), cult classics (Mean Girls), psychological thrillers (Black Swan), and Civil War dramas (The Beguiled) alike. By contrast, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite takes us to the court of Queen Anne, an 18th-century English monarch. There, a duchess named Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and a maid named Abigail (Emma Stone) variously resort to insults, emotional manipulation, blackmail, firearms, and poison in their desperate attempts to become Anne’s one most trusted confidant.

Without question, The Favourite most stands out for its acting. Colman, Weisz, and Stone’s performances easily ranked among 2018’s most riveting. Refusing to pay even lip service to the idea that characters should be likable, the trio depict their characters’ flaws with defiant relish, offering a portrait of three narcissists who’ll stop at nothing to preserve their overweening yet fragile egos.

Even when set aside her co-stars’ exceptional work, moreover, Stone merits special recognition. As a character, Abigail initially seems harmless: her statements come laced with “pleases” and “I’m sorrys,” and when she’s not curtsying, she usually carries a hunched posture. Yet as we come to see, Abigail’s unassuming appearance belies her quiet ruthlessness, a scheming mind that has the patience to endure short-term pain in order to acquire the power it covets. Eschewing the effortlessly sunny personality that defined Stone’s role in La La Land, Stone’s work in The Favourite is some of her most intriguing yet, and her ability to straddle the seeming contradictions in Abigail’s make-up would put Anne Baxter to shame.

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Unfortunately, even as the leading actresses brilliantly, exuberantly portray Anne, Sarah, and Abigail’s shortcomings, the larger film struggles to figure out how it should respond to said shortcomings. On the one hand, Lanthimos sometimes thinks that these flawed characters merit our sympathy. After Sarah falls out of Anne’s favor, for example, there’s a scene where the former begs the latter’s forgiveness. Anne, however, rejects Sarah’s entreaties, claiming that Abigail “wants nothing from me, unlike you.” While it’s hard to describe this confrontation in writing without making it sound a bit petty, the actual scene is shot as a long take that features no background music and barely perceptible camera movement. This unvarnished style gives the scene a solemn, heartbreaking tone, as though we were witnessing a permanent rupture in a close relationship. Because of this, moreover, Anne comes off less as a prima donna than as a vulnerable being who’s genuinely hurt by the way Sarah manipulates her.

In contrast to this compassionate attitude, however, other parts of the film treat the characters with the mocking, quasi-sadistic condescension that permeated many of Lanthimos’ previous films (e.g. Dogtooth, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). Narratively speaking, this disdain readily manifests itself in many places. Towards the beginning, for instance, there’s a slow-motion scene in which some noblemen race ducks around an indoor track. Throughout the film, moreover, Lanthimos gleefully exposes us to the many frivolities in Anne’s life, like her 17 pet rabbits and her tendency to make suicide threats in order to get attention. Since these moments of excess are invariably accompanied by rigid, contrastingly “proper” Baroque music, they always carry a scornful air, as though Lanthimos were ridiculing these royals for being decidedly undignified dunces.

This derisive tone is only further reinforced by Robbie Ryan’s cinematography. Throughout the film, he makes frequent use of fisheye-lens shots, as though to accentuate just how weird and messed-up the characters are. Additionally, Ryan often shoots characters from a low angle, and he also likes to insert long shots that underline the characters’ puniness vis-à-vis the castle’s large interiors. Viewed in light of the pompous, self-important rhetoric that the characters often employ, these exaggerating techniques make them out to be arrogant idiots, pretentious egotists who remain totally unaware of their own insignificance.

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Overall, then, The Favourite suffers from a noticeable case of tonal unevenness. I should hasten to add, however, that tonal inconsistency isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If used well, in fact, tonal disparities can actually help a director clarify or reinforce a narrative’s overarching “message.” In The Sisters Brothers, for instance, the narrative’s comedic and violent aspects were not so much clashing as complementary, allowing Jacques Audiard to provide a revisionist, “demythified” depiction of gunslingers in the West. And while the stories in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs alternated between the ludicrously comical and the dark, they nevertheless all stressed humankind’s utter lack of agency in the face of death.

Sadly, the problem with The Favourite is that its tonal disparities offer two fundamentally different “messages” regarding its characters’ flaws. Parts of the film are more forgiving, suggesting that Anne, Sarah, and Abigail’s egotism is only a symptom of being human. Other parts, however, turn the characters’ vanity into an object of scorn, portraying them as fools whose blatant superficiality lets us feel better about our own supposed virtue and self-awareness. As a satire of the well-off, the film thus feels torn, playing like an awkward, forced marriage of The Rules of the Game’s compassion and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’s ruthless sarcasm. And in the end, that built-in antagonism is what consigns the film to mediocrity.

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

***

The Favourite (2018)

Starring: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone

Running Time: 120 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for strong sexual content, nudity, and language.”

Produced by: Yorgos Lanthimos, Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Lee Magiday

Written by: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos