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'Stop Infection!': Some notes on Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite

Written by Jeroen Boom.

Photo from the article During the first moments of Yorgos Lanthimos’ most recent film The Favourite, we follow the orphaned Abigail (Emma Stone) as she manipulates her way into the royal household of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Covered in mud and dirt, she enters via the castle’s scullery, penetrating the bastion of the palace as a virus infiltrating the royal body, slowly infecting its corridors and rooms, its veins and organs, with her guile. While a severe case of gout slowly transforms and weakens the queen’s physical body - often resulting in nocturnal cries of pain, echoing hollowly through the labyrinthine hallways - Abigail begins her ascension to power, attempting to gradually replace the dour Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) as the lover and adviser of her majesty. What follows is a blood-curdling psychological competition between the two former-cousins-now-antagonists to become the queen’s primary bedfellow.

The Favourite examines a female hunger for power in the court of early 18th-century England; a sexual and political game of chess played out on the palace’s black-and-white checkered floors, rendered absurd by fish-eye lenses and unconventional camera angles. It is a costume drama turned upside down, subverting its generic parameters in every possible way. Instead of formal banquets of kept-up-appearances and patriarchal bureaucratic stiffness, Lanthimos gives us blatantly excessive food fights and refreshing matriarchal corruption. At the center of this phantasmagoric and hermitically sealed social universe (the film indeed only implicitly hints at an external world, reducing the war with France to mere historical background), we find Anne exercising her impressionable will from her bedchamber, equally seduced and deceived by her competing mistresses. 

Halfway through the film, we learn that Anne has named her seventeen pet bunnies after her lost children: “some [were] born as blood, some without breath, and some were just briefly with [her]”. Unlike Sarah, who refuses to come close to these “macabre” animals, it is Abigail who fakes affection toward the rabbits in order to secure her status as the queen’s favourite. When her carefully constructed facade begins to crumble, however, the queen catches her lover callously abusing one of her darlings, prompting her to realize that she was at Abigail’s mercy all along, just like the rabbit underneath her heel.

The queen is often captured in somatic images of abjection; the camera frequently lingers on her wounded and tethering leg that disables her to walk, but the lure of authority grants her body its desirability and its status as battleground. In one of the more brilliant but repulsive scenes, we behold the queen as she eats an entire blue-frosted cake, before copiously throwing it all up - after which she continues to munch again. Although the narrative act of vomiting conventionally functions as a cinematic indicator of a woman’s pregnancy, Lanthimos employs it as a grotesque signifier of the queen’s infertility. Against the tradition in Western art to find the perfect way of representing the monarchic body and obscuring the weaknesses of the physical body, The Favourite pictures Queen Anne in all her pathetic imperfections. The vulgarity of vomiting, among other things, becomes the queen’s piteous confession of her own body’s materiality, in both its incapacities and its limits.

The Favourite’s subversive power lies in its use of the abject and the absurd precisely to evoke a keen sense of fragility and to dismantle a harsh reality stripped bare of opulent ornaments. Here, as elsewhere in Lanthimos’s oeuvre, underneath the surface of deadpan dialogues, grotesque obscenity, and hedonistic escapism, there lurks an insidious sickness, and a deep suffering.

This article was published on February 17, 2019.

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