Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)

The apple of her eye

Yorgos Lanthimos' latest film The Favourite may be his oddest yet if you stop and consider his work so far, from breakthrough feature Dogtooth (about a family teaching a  skewed view of the world to its walled-in children) to the recent The Killing of a Sacred Deer (about a curse hovering over a physician's family) where metaphorical fantasy and (better yet) the machinations of human nature give his films a memorably loopy spin.

To fantasy and human perversity now add history: Lanthimos agreed to do a script by first-time author Deborah Davis (this being basically her baby) and veteran TV scriptwriter Tony Macnamara--one of the rare times the director is working with material that wasn't entirely his, and without frequent collaborator Efthymis Filippou. Also perhaps the first time Lanthimos worked in nonfiction mode (unless you count his contribution to Venice 70: The Future Reloaded) and with characters he didn't create out of the whole cloth of his imagination.

The result is reassuringly accessible and Lanthimos has been promptly rewarded: The Favourite earned some $70 million in the tills--the biggest business done by any film in his career--nominated for a slew of goldplated sex toys (okay--'Oscars') and (more credibly) the Grand Jury prize at Venice. 

And it is fun: Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) asks cousin Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz)--close advisor and childhood friend of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman)--for a job at the royal court. Sarah out of grudging pity gives Abigail the lowly position of scullery maid; Abigail takes advantage and with swiftly mashed-together herbal poultice applied to bad case of gout wriggles her way into the queen's notice and up the royal social ladder. The ensuing conflict--between tyrannical Sarah and up-and-coming Abigail over the hapless (if hardly innocent) Anne is like a vicious unexpectedly funny dogfight: when Sarah in the middle of a pigeon shoot suddenly aims a flintlock pistol at Abigail and fires you know anything can happen and probably will.

That said, you have to ask: does Lanthimos improve with all the guardrails surrounding him? Not sure. Dogtooth was my first encounter and it could be the shock of the new but his felt like a unique voice by turns mysterious and horrifying and funny, sometimes all three at the same time. With later films--The Lobster, Killing of a Sacred Deer--he resorted to more elaborate effects with lesser results. Magical transformation into animals? A progressively debilitating curse? I was ultimately perturbed but it took considerably more and more effort on his part to get me to that state each successive time and the sight (and stench) of flop sweat was unbecoming.

With Davis' and Macnamara's script Lanthimos regains some kind of balance: nothing supernatural about the shenanigans in this film though the director does feel fit to cram anachronisms in the margins of the frame (costumes featuring African-inspired black and white patterns; servants wearing recycled denim; Sarah pulling a courtier onto the dance floor to vogue to classical music). It's bizarre but not half as bizarre as the drama in the foreground: apparently there was a Sarah Churchill and she did vie for Queen Anne's favor with cousin Abigail Hill (later Masham); apparently Anne did have seventeen children none of which survived to grow into adulthood. The seventeen rabbits Anne keeps in their memory is a writer's invention (in the 17th century conies were more likely killed or eaten than cared for) but also an implicitly powerful metaphor: silly decadent pets that you can't help but snigger at till you learn they're a mother's way of remembering her children.

By film's end (skip this paragraph if you plan to see the picture!) I'm guessing Lanthimos felt the need to cut loose and does: Abigail ends up ascendant, decides to celebrate her hardwon power by mashing a bunny to the floor with her heel; Anne realizing what she's done demands that Abigail kneels and--with royal hand firmly clenched onto the young woman scalp--massage her swollen legs. A humiliating reassertion of the established power structure with neither women fully satisfied; image of rabbits hopping about are superimposed--Lanthimos' way I suppose of reminding us that for all of Anne's cruelty she's emotionally invested in these animals and can we blame her for responding thusly when Abigail abuses the creatures? All nicely unsettling but for a moment Lanthimos loses his impish sense of humor and is being merely sadistic (translate: being mainly Gaspar Noe). The film so admirably poised between grotesque and grossly comic falls flat on its powdered face.

Some have compared the picture to Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon; I say "hold a minute." Kubrick's costumed epic at first blush seems like the very epitome of white elephant art, gargantuan in scale and glacially paced with the emotional temperature of snow melt. But John Alcott's widescreen cinematography--which captures both the silvered light of an overcast English afternoon and the aureate glitter of a candlelit gambling salon--unfurls to either side of our dazzled eyes a gorgeously realized world of frozen social classes and ironclad conventions, to better note the shudders caused and fissures opened by Redmond Barry's unruly passage. Where Lanthimos gives us token period beauty made jarringly grotesque by fisheye lenses (a lazy way to distort and parody) Kubrick gives us the Olympian view, thrilling us with a panoramic yet delicate resplendent yet desolate sense of irony. Lanthimos as mentioned has regained his balance, possibly achieved his career best; Kubrick presents an epically intimate masterpiece with little more fuss it seems than the flick of a wrist. 
First published in Businessworld 2.22.19 

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