Sex and power intersect in Yorgos Lanthimos' riotous Royal Palace satire
Words by Savina Petkova / @SavinaPetkova
I BET YOU'VE NEVER SEEN ANYONE ON screen compare the Queen’s face to that of a badger. Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, a bold take on period film, swishes us through long corridors that echo Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) high-pitched screams of petulant discontent. “Stop it, stop it now!”, she demands upon any sign of joviality, be it musical, or dance. Her deafening kill-joy cry, for once, interrupts Lady Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough’s (Rachel Weisz) traditional ballroom dance-turned-parody with robotic breakdancing moves. This image is a vivid metaphor of what Lanthimos does with the period piece: he turns it bottom up, almost bursting the seams of its 18th century corset, to present the blood and dirt of the stagnated royal body.
Based on a gap in the history books, of what went wrong with the relationship between Queen Anne of Great Britain and Lady Sarah Marlborough – all three of them deliver excellently cunning performances, their shared alchemy aligning in this power-rotation game. In the late years of the Queen’s tragic life, we see Anne succumbed to grief over her stillborn children, and aching gout that immobilises her cranky human self. The fire-thrust is Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin, who arrives at the palace rather muddy, underdressed, and is ready to serve even as a “monster for the kids to play with”, as Lady Sarah teases her. Shortly after, Abigail shows her teeth and claims a bite off the royal cake, that is the Queen. By fulfilling a series of cunning plans, she proves worthy of Anne’s a approval, and ultimately, affection. In this power-play, everyone gets hurt. However different The Favourite may be from Lanthimos’ previous films, no one is spared, as blood is shed, faces get slapped, backs get whipped, and rabbits get smothered.
The film is divided in eight tableaux, each of them bearing a spicy title, from “This Mud Stinks” to “I Dreamt I Stabbed You In The Eye”, sounding more like indie song openings rather than sonnets. A novelistic representation of narrative, which pulls the lever on a whimsical stoppage between episodes. The spectator is invited and rejected from this ball, reflecting both the director’s aloof fascination with the deranged characters in his film-worlds, and the dynamics of eroticism in The Palace. Desire is a structural element of The Favourite, which penetrates its architecture, props, and cinematography, making it Lanthimos’ most intimate project by far.
Shot in Hatfield Estate North of London, a well-known filming spot, this eerie comedy compresses its wide rooms, high ceilings, and long corridors, to the narrowing dimensions of wide-angle and fisheye lenses. The camera moves swiftly in pans when it navigates through a long shot, and remains mostly static when framing a face. All details are fleshed out in close ups – bruises, inflammations, and scars are fetishised and map out desire’s structuring presence. Any melodramatic undertones are brushed off with provocative (contemporary English) language, and it seems everyone is obsessed with the ‘c’ word (not ‘court’). In contrast, the ascension of Abigail is portrayed as vertical one even in her costumes: taken in as a maid in the kitchen, wearing denim dress and apron, she is then promoted to be Lady Sarah’s personal maid, wearing her hair up and a simple black dress, and when she eventually gains the key to the palace, we see lace adorning her luscious dress, adumbrated with jewellery.
The film is remarkably led by three strong female performances, as men are put on the sidelines with little screen time, which seem to strike a power balance, by alternating the women's’ submission and dominance in relation to one another. Lanthimos doesn’t shy away from violent portrayals of sexual desire (as assault, as rape, as incest), yet in The Favourite, he gives us a taste of tenderness, which does justice to the multi-faceted, ever-frightening female sexuality. Here, there is no extreme detachment from desire as we see in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), or no prohibition as with Dogtooth (2009), and no institutionalisation like we saw in The Lobster (2015). Still, in The Palace, sex is a game of power.
A manic love triangle spins the plot into a frenzy, as the battlefield trades its place in France to commence a new war over the Queen’s decaying body. This corporeal battle soon becomes bloody and rough, concocted out of second-guessing, double-crossing, and physical violence,. The Favourite is a film that flirts with gestures, clothes, and manners that are conventionally considered ‘ladylike’, making a subversive case to the period film pantheon. Laudably, the director of this sensually delighting offbeat comedy, is a man. Even more, a Greek-born man amending British history could even make up for the British Museum’s appropriation of the Ancient Greek Parthenon ruins.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Country: UK / Ireland / USA
Duration: 119 minutes
Rating: 15 for "very strong language, strong sex"
Release: January 1, 2019
Savina Petkova is the Managing Editor of Electric Ghost Magazine. She also contributes to MUBI Notebook, Photogénie and Girls on Tops.