In his 2015 film The Lobster, Greek director Yargos Lanthimos evoked a haunting vision of social engineering run amok, where unattached patrons of a “Hotel” are forced to couple up under threat of, basically, death. In this weird updating of Kafka’s penal colony, people living the singles lifestyle represent a terrible threat to social order, and enforced romance is seen as a means of suppressing the chaos of individuality. So much for bachelorhood, folks.
As I wrote of The Lobster at the time: “Lanthimos utterly subverts the dichotomies of classic dystopias by creating a world of pervasive repression — there is literally no exit here. Whether a subject of the Hotel, a renegade in the wild or a denizen of the city, where couples share a common trait, everyone is under a kind of emotional lockdown that is insidiously enforced person to person.”
This brings to mind the work of theorist Michel Foucault, who suggested that fascism does not descend from monolithic structures of government but, rather, takes place in the insidious exchange of power between solitary people at all levels of society, where oppression and psychic violence become slippery intangibles, hard to hold and harder to combat. Fascism, in this vision, is merely the coagulation of a moral and civic collapse already existing at the ground level of everyday life — i.e., Trump not as cause but, rather, as ultimate expression of something deeply wrong with us all.
Lanthimos’ next film, The Killing of the Sacred Deer (2017), provided an even subtler and more disturbing look at how power and corruption seep into the stuff of mundane existence. In this darkest of dark comedies — a strange and gloomy mash-up of Greek mythology and the Old Testament story of Isaac and Abraham — the secrets and lies that protect the father of a well-to-do family come back with a vengeance that is at once utterly secular and fantastically supernatural. Justice is always cosmic, the film hints, and nobody in this life really gets away with shit.
To all appearances, Lanthimos’ new film, The Favourite, is a complete departure from his previous two offerings: A grotesque, darkly comic period piece based on the early 18th-century court of Queen Anne, set during Britain’s war with France. Mannered and decadent, opulent and rotten at the fringes, the movie envisions the monarchy as a carnal, claustrophobic tangle of petty intrigues and political jockeying, often plied with a twist of orgiastic lust and sexual aggression. Turns out Jonathan Swift, who gets an off-screen nod as a journalist in the film, was right after all: The royals are vile assholes.
At the core of the film is a romantic triangle: the queen (the wonderful Olivia Colman), a gouty, pouty tyrant given to adolescent outbursts and unbridled appetites, but not totally lacking in cunning; her lover, Sarah the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz, wicked), whose intimacies with Her Highness grant her a certain amount of political influence; and Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone, a revelation), a woman of fallen standing who slowly, steadily insinuates herself into the queen’s confidences.
This is not a nice movie, and the women at the center of it are not nice — in fact, they’re rather cunts, an epithet hurled with such unabashed regularity that it achieves an aura of aggrieved courtly reverence. The more bankrupt wing of feminist ideology would seem to imply that women are inherently better than men: more caring, less violent, less tempted to abuse power and exploit the downtrodden. Lanthimos’ film, co-written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, flies in the face of such romanticized hogwash, granting actual respect to its female characters — not as types, neither victim nor hero nor whore nor Madonna, but as actual people with actual agency.
That each of these three characters employs her agency to completely selfish and reprehensible ends is invigorating — because it reveals the truth that at the core of power and corruption is the tricky issue of character, which does not fit neatly into any prefabricated category of identity like gender, or race, or any of that. In this sense, The Favourite is a truly feminist film, on par with the unreconstructed realism of Debra Granik’s 2010 masterpiece Winter’s Bone.
More than that, it is a visually sumptuous, morally repulsive and wildly funny portrait of the way political power congeals around the greed, narcissism and fear of its participants, creating a cycle of corruption and collateral damage that replicates itself through sheer inertia, until — rivalry upon rivalry — it unleashes an avalanche of evil down through the ages.
The film’s final scene is baffling until taken in just this context. The underlying misery of power traps even those exercising it, thereby reproducing itself, its tyrannies and it tyrants, like rabbits rutting.
Taken altogether, The Lobster, The Killing of the Sacred Deer and The Favourite form a seamless triptych of power and the insidious ways it expresses itself — not at the level of ideology, but in the interstices of human relationships, where the seeds of dishonesty and greed first get planted. (Broadway Metro)