Few people familiar with the recent work of director Yorgos Lanthimos would expect to leave a movie of his feeling anything other than oppressive despair, a general sense of mourning for our collective loss of innocence. Another common feeling: straight-up confusion—because, seriously, what the fuck happened in The Killing of a Sacred Deer?
Perhaps the overriding feeling though, when leaving a Lanthimos film, is one of having just been seduced, utterly enchanted by both the mesmerizing narrative contortions happening on-screen and the sumptuously, inventively shot characters and settings. This feeling of being mesmerized—if not always pleasantly so—dominates those other reactions, leaving departing viewers in something of a dreamy fugue state, unsure of what they just witnessed, but wishing they could linger within its framework for a little while longer.
Lanthimos' latest, The Favourite, is perhaps his dreamiest yet, and, most would agree, his least nightmare-ish (not that there aren't plenty of atrocious elements within it to be found), and thus the film in which you'd most like to linger. Starring three incredible actors at the top of their games—Olivia Colman, as Queen Anne; Rachel Weisz, as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough; and Emma Stone, as Abigail Hill, later Lady Masham—The Favourite is an absurdist feast, visually stunning (if not historically accurate), with as much physical comedy as pitch-perfect verbal sparring.
Set toward the end of Queen Anne's reign, The Favourite has some historical basis; the Duchess of Marlborough was a close confidante and advisor to the queen, but seems to have been usurped by Lady Masham, an impoverished cousin of the Duchess, who rose quite unexpectedly to become Queen Anne's favorite during a politically tumultuous time. It's a story ripe for a reimagining, and that's exactly what Lanthimos and screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have done, notably by injecting humor and unflinching sexuality into the normally sedate realm of a period piece.
Stone, in particular, wields the twin blades of humor and sex to great effect, though, as she told me recently, she often burst into hysterics when playing a scene that was particularly inane. Stone explained that there was one specific point in filming during which she just couldn't stop herself from laughing, saying, "I blame Olivia—even though I love her so much. But [it was when] I had to finger the queen. We had to put a sponge between her legs, because it had to have movement, and we could not stop laughing, because I'm, like, squeezing a sponge and she's making sounds. And it's, like, a very close close-up on my face, but her face is off-camera, so she was like this"—here, Stone paused to contort her face in such a way that it was possible to see, in her wide-eyed features, the face of Olivia Colman as Queen Anne getting fingered, and it was all very special—"And we just kept cracking up, just because the circumstance was so ridiculous, like—the sponge. So that one was tough."
And yet, while this scene, and others—including a wedding-night hand-job that needs to be seen to be fully appreciated—are perfect examples of the seemingly lighter elements of the film, and are precisely what viewers will reference when noting how much more digestible this film is than Lanthimos' prior work, that doesn't mean that there isn't a truly dark, insidious undercurrent running through The Favourite.
And, that is perhaps what is most perverse of all about this film—it's not the fact that various members of the aristocracy are manually fucked by one another, but rather it's the ways in which it is possible to see how the most ordinary people are fucked a dozen different ways by those in power, and can only hope to get power for themselves by learning how to participate in these dirty games, get down under the covers and beneath the frilly skirts, so that they're in the dirt all together.
It's not exactly something to laugh at, or maybe it is. Maybe, since we're all fucked anyway, we might as well laugh so we don't cry—or get crushed by the perfectly shod foot that seems to hover indefinitely over our necks.
The Favourite is in theaters on November 23.