Charline Fernandez takes a break from duck racing and pineapple eating to send us this review of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite from the Cork Film Festival.
Royal satire The Favourite is a brilliant dark comedy, shattering notions of aristocratic decency with glee. Screening as part of Cork Film Festival, Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest had its audience at the Everyman Theatre on Saturday in howls of laughter.
Set in the early 18th century, England and France are at war. However, the real battle is taking place in the Royal Palace. Two cousins are fighting for the attention of the childish and ill Queen Anne (Olivia Colman – The Iron Lady, The Lobster). Her closest friend is Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz – Youth, Disobedience), a strong, determined woman with a sharp tongue. Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail (Emma Stone – La La Land) is a former noble fallen on hard times attempting to social climb.
Although one could expect a formal atmosphere stressing a rigid and romanticized type of life, The Favourite subverts all expectations of typical historical drama, feeling like a breath of fresh air. Oscillating between tense and grotesque moments, the narrative keeps surprising the viewer. A recurrent element playing on these contrasts is the presence of tamed ducks – who race for the court’s pleasure – punctuating the conversations with their quacks.
Breaking the stereotype of the old princess movies, one scene shows new servant Abigail in a wood picking up plant medicine. Suddenly, a charismatic young man appears on his horse looking at the beautiful seemingly innocent person. However, the tables are soon turned when the lady bites the lip of the noble in her bedroom and literally kicks his ass during a twisted sort of role play in the same forest.
The subversion even extends into the editing as The Favourite is happy playing with the codes of filmmaking. Scenes fade in on one another resulting in a corny superimposition of images, which creates a dissonance between old-school historical drama and Lanthimos’ use of more provocative elements of modern filmmaking. Divided into several acts, the titles are often taken from a character’s venomous line.
Some of the humour even dares to cross the line of historical inaccuracies. Sofia Coppola had already challenged the conventional ballroom scene in Marie-Antoinette, having its central royal figures dancing to punk-rock band Siouxsie and The Banshees. Here, Lanthimos takes it further with a dance between Lady Sarah and a noble that starts old-school but quickly switches hilariously into more contemporary choreography with break dance and hip-hop movements.
The script is just one verbal swordplay after another, particularly the scenes involving Nicholas Hoult’s Robert Harley, a master manipulator campaigning for lower taxes. While its three central women shine throughout, the X-Men actor has his fair share of the screenplay’s provocative lines. When Abigail asks him for a favour, he dryly replies: “Favour is a breeze that shifts direction all the time. Then in an instant you’re back to sleeping with a bunch of scabrous whores.”
The cinematography from Robbie Ryan adds to the non-conformity of the film. Fish-eye lenses are strategically placed in the corner of the enormous rooms while low-angle shots breeze through endless corridors. These two combined elements create a sense of distorted reality. The same goes for the soundtrack announcing the tone from the beginning. Although it is a classical score in the opening scene, the long silences in the melody create some dissonance. As the film continues, electronic notes become more discordant.
While The Favourite is hysterically funny, Lanthimos’ does not skirt over the darkness of the story he is telling, leaving it to linger heavily in the last act. The decadence of the members of the court leads to a tragic ending where all protagonists are prisoners – for better or worse – of their own condition despite all their efforts to escape.
In Lanthimos’ satire, power corrupts. Yet, to his credit he never forgets the people caught in the power plays.
The Favourite screened on Saturday, 10th November 2018 as part of the Cork Film Festival