These women want their words to be heard. They want their will to be known. They want to be able to change their minds. And they want the full mind-body kiss. Sex is more than a vehicle for the transfer of power, the re-inscription of hierarchies in the Court. This is about a desire for closeness, about removing layers of corsetry and makeup to reveal truths of gout-swollen limbs and pain that cannot be fucked away.
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“Look at me! Look at me! How dare you! Close your eyes!”
A film that looks #MeToo in the eye, features women who desire and strive to be heard, and yet owes an aesthetic debt to the great cinematic sadist Pier Paolo Pasolini? Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite stages a refreshingly feminist response to Pasolini’s visual orgy Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. While The Favourite replaces the violent excesses of 1940s Italian fascism with those of the Restoration-era British monarchy, both films offer a master class in the aesthetics of bodily, ideological, and architectural control that rule their cinematic spaces. As if riding our red tricycle through the corridors of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, the audience enters gilded dining rooms and mirrored halls that overpower; encounters larger-than-life exoskeletons of leather fetish armor; peers through prison bars of rabbit cages. We are trapped, enthralled, longing for some escape. Amid the lavish domination of production design and wide-angle shots, both The Favourite and Salò present an intimate anatomy of how power ritually destroys bodies – and in stolen, hidden, and spare moments, brings those same bodies closer together.
Like Salò, The Favourite is divided into distinct chapters (Salo’s Circle of Shit and Circle of Blood rechristened This Mud Stinks and I Dreamt I Stabbed You in the Eye), in which we progressively move deeper into the Royal Court’s Dantean Circles of Hell. While Pasolini shows us the during of bodily violations and humiliations performed for the sadistic pleasures of royals (coprophilia, rape, torture), Lanthimos focuses more on the aftermath of violence and Queen Anne’s tender strivings for human connection. However thwarted or in vain these strivings may be, The Favourite offers a re-humanizing and surprisingly feminist response to Salò’s ritual dehumanizations.
Lanthimos is both sadist and ethicist, though of a different sort than Pasolini (or Stanley Kubrick or Gaspar Noé, those other celebrated cinema sadists). He’s interested in women and their complex, meaty layers – their full pleasure-pain spectrum, their possibilities as empathy machines who also have agency, characters who are not merely pawns of a paternalistic state or objects of male desire. In a recent Guardian interview, Lanthimos described an “instinctive” rather than deliberately politicized representation of women in The Favourite: “I was interested in that which I hadn’t seen.” The film flips the age-old script in its visceral depiction of female desire (“Fuck me!”) mixed with cruelty, intimacy, fun. The audience experiences the insatiable wants, varied pleasures, and inconsolable pains of Lanthimos’ female characters. We witness their inheritance of loss after loss. We enter the dark spaces of love and violation that permit intermingling and even brief moments of understanding between bodies.
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah, Emma Stone as Abigail: these are characters with complex psychologies; they have multidimensional human desires, fears, failings; they each have backstories, family histories, specific traumas that shaped the women we see on screen. They all come from somewhere and are living in the aftermath of their origin stories – and wildly striving to write what’s next.
These women want, in every sense of the word. They desire. They strive. They have ambition. They hunt. They see beyond the boudoir, the washroom, the kitchen, the Big House. They are also broken, wounded, searching. These are characters with a deep and gaping hole that cannot be filled by the men in their orbit (Joe Alwyn and Nicholas Hoult take great comic turns in The Favourite, yet male characters are peripheral to the carnal-emotional exchanges between women that drive the film). These women want their words to be heard. They want their will to be known. They want to be able to change their minds. And they want the full mind-body kiss. Sex is more than a vehicle for the transfer of power, the re-inscription of hierarchies in the Court. This is about a desire for closeness, about removing layers of corsetry and makeup to reveal truths of gout-swollen limbs and pain that cannot be fucked away.
Like Alex DeLarge staring with blank menace into the captive audience of Clockwork Orange, Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is a looming presence with eyes like black holes, drawing in all matter – all joy – all memory of pain into her gravitational orbit. She is a mercurial Queen whose will wavers, who can make or destroy a life with the upturn of an eyebrow, though at the core of her darkness are those rabbits sniffing around her bedroom floor, reminders of the seventeen children lost in miscarriage, childbirth, or thereafter.
Anne is the Queen of Wanting, and her body is a corporeal record of pain. And yet she is also the loudest voice in the film, the most looming physical presence – and this is not always a joke at her expense. Like Sydney Greenstreet’s mob boss in The Maltese Falcon, her magnitude is also a source of cinematic power. In a crucial detour from the usual depiction of despots, she is a woman in power who is permitted ambivalence, to speak two opposing commands and desires – and to mean them both: “Look at me! Look at me! How dare you! Close your eyes!”
On one hand, here Anne the Queen offers an absurd display of absolute power. In one breath, she can both demand and retract her request. Yet here is also Anne the vulnerable, the self-doubting woman who alternately feels invisible and unsightly (she is told repeatedly by Lady Sarah that she resembles a badger). Here she voices both her desire to be looked at and her fear of being seen – a desire to be seen and not ridiculed, to be known and not rejected, and perhaps most revolutionary, to be both the object of desire and the desiring subject. Anne is not merely the S/M Master of Ceremonies; somewhere in her cruelty is a swaddled, tortured, striving heart.
We see a similar desire, pain, and ambivalence in the ecstatic feast-turned-dance sequence later in the film, when wheelchaired Anne watches Sarah dance for her viewing pleasure. Anne sits at the head of the banquet, bejeweled, bewitched, and bothered by Sarah’s swinging skirts and sweating body. Sarah is Salome dancing her veiled dance, though the camera soon shifts its focus to Anne’s painful experience of the dance, climaxing in her shouting insistence: “Stop it! Stop it! Stop!” She pushes the spectacle away and abruptly demands to be wheeled to her bedroom. It’s notable, too, that here Anne uses the language of refusal, of an unwavering No, withdrawing her consent. Her shouts offer a loud alternative to the sexual violations Abigail and other women describe in earlier moments of the film. Her refusal is heard and honored, her voice a clapperboard that stops the action.
The dance itself is comically physical, uncategorizable, unwieldy: it moves from mannered waltzing to Madonna-era vogue to backward swinging arms labeled in the shooting script simply as “The Exorcist.” Similarly absurdist dance sequences present painfully human moments of unmasking and revelation in several Lanthimos films (most notably Dogtooth), and here the dance stages the desiring mayhem at work in Anne’s Court. While Anne initially wants to sit back and consume the spectacle of Sarah’s body in motion (think: Jabba licking his lips at the sight of bronze-bikinied Leia), the scene devolves from visual-erotic enthrallment into a profound experience of Anne’s own isolation, immobility, and feeling of unsightliness. Desiring subject turned ashamed object, not only does she want to stop seeing, she wants to stop being seen. She returns to the dark invisibility of her bedroom.
Lanthimos is no stranger to the sadomasochistic dance of cinema; anyone who’s experienced his earlier films Dogtooth or The Killing of a Sacred Deer can attest to the wild visual pleasures and visceral pains that are the hallmark of his style. He wants us to revel in visual thrills at the same time as we recoil from the pain of characters who can only protect themselves through deals with various human devils and inner demons: whether knocking out one’s own teeth with a dumbbell (Dogtooth) or bashing one’s face in with a book (The Favourite), Lanthimos’ women seem born knowing that every freedom and pleasure comes at a cost. In nearly every scene, despite her looming presence and title as Queen, Anne knows this cost.
In Olivia Colman’s mercurial Anne, whose wild appetite and shifting desires mask her bodily pains and profound loneliness, we see how the The Favourite is also the heir of Milos Forman’s Amadeus, an echo of Tom Hulce’s Mozart: the hysterical laughter, the carnal dance of libertines shuffling under skirts, the physical delights of cross-dressing (titillating spectacle and subversive gender-bending costumed by Sandy Powell of Orlando fame), the bodily aftermath of prolonged exposure to tiered cakes and gilded goblets and royal inbreeding. In that wild mix of choreography and improvisation that makes a good hunt, Queen Anne and Her Majesty’s Court feast and cry, for their and our perverse entertainment. And yet the film ends not with the carnal feast, but with Anne alone, in gout-ridden pain, abandoned and unattended, a pair of blackpooled eyes staring into a solitary void. Alone with her seventeen rabbits. The jig is up, and we are left sitting with Anne, surrounded by these haunting proxies for her dead children, sitting silently in the dark with her pain. We are partners in her wanting.
As a point of contrast, let’s not forget: the men of The Favourite know and feel little, they are mere screens and specters, the manipulated pawns and objects of the central female desiring triangle. Whether parading in heels and wigs about Court or the costumes of Parliament, men are theatrical but not psychological, ridiculous shadows walking on either side of a scrim. In a scene easily eclipsed by the Anne-Sarah-Abigail triangle that rightfully dominates our sense memory of the film, the gentlemen of the court throw pomegranates at a nude compatriot, a hairy succulent ready for the roast, missing all but an apple in his supine mouth. In a carnivalesque of blood and sadomasochism befitting one of the chapters of Salò, this scene reminds us where we are at all times, at least on the surface of things: inside a nightmare carnality in which equations of humiliation and feasting have the potential to animate and undo each body.
It is here – in this contrast between the sadomasochistic spectacle of bloodied fruit thrust against skin and the quiet darkness of Anne and her rabbits – that Lanthimos distinguishes his film from Salò. The Favourite believes in empathy, in desire that marks our humanness, in the striving for connection. In the end, Anne is neither ridiculous tyrant nor grotesque spectacle, but psychologically complex and vulnerably human. Her traumatic backstory is neither conceptual nor simply part of a visual orgy Lanthimos stages for his audience. She is our proxy, our double. We desire with her, we want to be seen without harsh judgment, we want to understand. And despite the pain and the tortured dance, we want to wrestle with other bodies in the dark and find connection within this beautifully human mess.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the films’ DVDs.