Center Court

By David MarnoDecember 28, 2018

Center Court
WHEN THE CREDITS START ROLLING at the end of Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film, The Favourite, the white fonts are arranged into geometrical patterns against the black background, much like the white lace on the dark and gorgeous pseudo-baroque garments that the ladies wear in Queen Anne’s court, the film’s main setting. The first sounds of a harpsichord suggest that for a few more minutes we are staying in the early 18th century, but after a couple of beats, Sir Elton John begins to sing, and it turns out that we are listening to his 1968 song “Skyline Pigeon.” In the song, an ambitious pigeon who seems to double as a metaphor for the speaker finds himself in a “dark and lonely room,” “dreaming of the open,” desirous to “fly away […] towards the dreams you’ve left so far behind.”

The only pop song included in The Favourite’s score, “Skyline Pigeon” holds a funhouse mirror to the film, a musical equivalent of the film’s intermittent but pervasive use of fisheye lens. For one thing, the film features several actual pigeons, most of whom fall victim to the shooting games that two of the film’s three protagonists play in front of the third’s palace. The Favourite tells the story of the young Abigail Hill’s arrival in Queen Anne’s court, and the subsequent rivalry between Abigail and her older cousin Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, for the Queen’s favors. Like her 20th-century descendant Winston, Sarah has a penchant for war, and since she’s somewhat slow to recognize the competition she is about to face in Abigail, she takes her out for a few shooting lessons. The first half of the film is thus peppered with conversations between the two courtesans (as in “ladies of the court”) that take place while servants throw pigeons in the air only to be shot down immediately by Sarah and her quick study Abigail.

Immediately in a very real sense. The last time we see them have a crack at the game, Abigail, who at the beginning of the film fired her first shot rather reluctantly and unskillfully, now barely waits for the pigeon to leave the servant’s hand and hits it so fast that the bird’s blood squirts into her cousin’s face and onto her exquisite dress. The moment signals not only the culmination of Abigail’s education in intrigue and incursion at the court, but Sarah’s recognition that she made a mistake in taking her cousin under her wing. Both women tremble, Abigail with excitement, Sarah with shock; and in the heat of the moment we quite forget about the pigeon who will not be mentioned again until Elton John’s song.

Abigail (Emma Stone) and Sarah (Rachel Weisz) shoot pigeons between the grandeur of Queen Anne’s palace and the distortions of cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s fisheye lens

The Favourite is a lavishly produced period drama for a very 21st-century audience. It focuses on a love and power triangle involving three women, and passes the Bechdel test with flying color — here, it is men who spend most of their on-screen time talking about women in power, often while touching themselves or stroking penile objects that range from a walking stick to a goose’s neck. Lanthimos deploys unorthodox stylistic devices, the most conspicuous of which are the strange camera angles and the obtrusive use of fisheye lens for both indoor and outdoor shots. But when passions flare up, we quite forget about all these circumstances and become engrossed in the emotions of the characters. And since this is a fast-paced film that moves from romp to melodrama and back again often within minutes, we are hurried from one heated moment to another, meaning that the overall experience is that of a thrilling, by turns hilarious and heart-breaking drama in which all three characters exhibit a bewildering range of emotions, and the actors make it all believable by staying well within the framework of psychological realism.

None of this sounds like a Yorgos Lanthimos film. The Greek director gained international fame with the 2009 Dogtooth and has been subsequently known for his absurd and allegorical plot premises, verbal and visual non-sequiturs, and for dialogues in which clichéd lines are exchanged by expressionless actors. Lanthimos’s earlier films are rich in potential meaning and high in the risk of alienating their audiences; above all, they seem to be set on defamiliarizing us with the kind of psychological realism that dominates mainstream filmmaking today. So how do we get from them to The Favourite, a film that happily embraces the very mode that the earlier works mocked and disassembled?

In one of the opening scenes of Alps, Lanthimos’s 2011 follow-up to Dogtooth, a young woman is being rushed to the hospital. Shot inside an ambulance, the images focus on her blood covered head and a hand that holds it, while a male voice asks questions, presumably to keep her conscious. The questions take an odd turn when the man asks who her favorite actor is. When she cannot answer, he offers two options: Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. Only later do we learn that her favorite actor is actually Jude Law. This personal trivia is no triviality. Set in the midst of Greek dialogues and pronounced with a heavy Greek accent, the defamiliarized English names launch the film’s meditations on the brief history of Western civilization and identity. Alps centers on a small business offering a niche service: its employees assume the role of a deceased person for a friend or a family to help with the bereavement process. The playacting relies on a few rudimentary devices: all that is needed to impersonate the dead is a piece of clothing, a turn of phrase, or the deceased person’s favorite actor or singer. As it happens, in the world of Alps, everyone favors icons of the American cultural industry, from Jude Law to Winona Ryder, from Harry Belafonte to Prince.

Seven years later, The Favourite features some of the biggest names of that very industry. Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill competes with Rachel Weisz’s Sarah Churchill for the favors of Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne, against the background of similarly famed male actors including Nicholas Hoult and Mark Gatiss. To be sure, this isn’t Lanthimos’s first time to work with prominent Anglophone actors; his two previous films had all-star casts as well, from Colin Farrell to Nicole Kidman. But both in The Lobster and in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos used his actors’ star power to smuggle into the Anglophone world the absurdist, auteurist cinema he’s been known for since Dogtooth.

The Favourite is a fresh start. It’s the first time that Lanthimos has worked from an existing script, and Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s work carefully curates the historical facts of Queen Anne’s reign — and, in particular, the roughly seven years that the film’s plot covers — to the demands of a two-hour psychological drama. For instance, the fact that Queen Anne was (as far as we can tell quite happily) married during much of the period of the plot is omitted, as is her husband’s existence — and, for that matter, the Queen’s religiosity — presumably in order to focus more sharply on the erotic and power triangle of the three protagonists.

The results may lack in historical accuracy, but they do provide Lanthimos and the actors with an extraordinarily flexible set of premises. Unlike the pigeon in Elton John’s song, residents of the royal court have no desire to leave the dark rooms of the palace. The Queen herself seems barely to know that there is a world outside. While the film features obligatory horse-riding scenes and magnificent shots of autumn canopies, Queen Anne is never seen outdoors but spends most of her time in the bedroom with 17 rabbits that she feeds with cake, or in a wheelchair being pushed through the labyrinthine network of dimly lit corridors by her favorite, Sarah Churchill, who seems to be quite satisfied with the Queen staying indoors while she runs the country for her.

Queen Anne is thus much in need of a breath of fresh country air, which is what Abigail brings to the palace when she arrives covered in mud and with a halo of flies around her head. Abigail is at first lost in the darkness of the palace. Rooms in The Favourite have a claustrophobic feel, as if the wood panels or the thick tapestry served to lock any expression of pain or pleasure into them. But they are also connected by long and narrow hallways and secret double doors that function like spaceship airlocks, so that even the most modest servants can feel as though the unimaginable amount of power that resides just a few doors away is somehow within reach. No wonder that Abigail’s desire is fired up as soon as she begins to witness the court’s workings (in the first half of the film, Lanthimos often allows the camera to linger on Emma Stone’s face for long seconds to convey a sense of surprise and awakening), and no wonder that she soon decides to reach deeper into its dark rooms.

The Favourite does a beautiful job in reminding us that the court is not a primitive version of modern political power but an altogether different institution, one that grounds power in the sovereign’s body. The problem, though, is that Queen Anne’s particular body turns out to be a diseased and increasingly amorphous one. Her open sores ooze pus and blood; one time she brags childlike of her new stocking, oblivious of the blood that shows through the white silk. She’s overweight, bulimic, and perhaps diabetic; in one particularly gut-wrenching scene her servants look on as she gorges herself on a colorful cake, then vomits into a silver jar, only to turn back to the frosty dessert again. Above all, Queen Anne seems to be confused about the exact boundaries of her body: she calls the rabbits she keeps in the bedroom her children, and we can’t quite tell if they are a replacement for or a representation of her 17 dead children, many of whom died in her womb.

Abigail is a quick learner; while Sarah disapproves of what she finds a macabre hobby, Abigail embraces a furry creature and thus wins access to the Queen’s heart and bedroom. She has been in the latter before; one night, she was called to lay pieces on the throbbing wounds of the Queen’s legs. Another night, she looks on as the wheelchaired Queen takes Sarah in her lap. These experiences teach Abigail how needy, vulnerable, and therefore accessible the Queen's body is — and what kind of opportunities this might mean for her. When the Queen finally asks Abigail into her bed for a leg massage, the maid’s hands venture above the thighs, and for a moment Queen Anne forgets the difference between pain and pleasure. Sarah protests, but Anne gleefully points out that she likes Abigail’s tongue inside of her body. To win the game that Sarah unwittingly taught her cousin to play, is to arrive inside of the Queen.

But it turns out that she may not like to be there, after all. Up until this point, Abigail’s scheming isn’t incompatible with our sympathy for her character, not the least because of Emma Stone’s exuberantly joyful performance of her mischiefs. But one day Abigail places her foot on the very bunny that helped her gain access to the Queen and presses it down for an uncomfortably long moment. What the episode suggests is not so much that she was always a villain but that she has become one; like the Queen herself, Abigail also doesn’t know what to do with the power she has gained. The film’s last, delirious scene is a montage of three images: the Queen’s tortured face, on which the desire for relief is replaced by the need to inflict pain; Abigail’s face, which reflects the terrifying recognition of what awaits her; and rabbits that multiply haplessly, not knowing that they had been chosen to play the dead.

This last scene is a neat conclusion to the psychological drama that is at the center of The Favourite’s plot. And the way both Abigail and the Queen are punished, the former for her villainy and the latter for failing to recognize true loyalty, is reminiscent of the kind of poetic justice that often concludes romans à clef in the vein of Les Liaisons dangereuses. As the screen goes dark and Elton John begins to sing of a pigeon, the distorted image that the song offers of the film can remind us of the pervasive use of fisheye lens throughout the film, and we realize that its function may have been to create a sense that we are peeking through keyholes to catch the intricacies of the royal court.

Alternatively, the hallucinatory quality of the last images might prompt a different question: if the image of the Queen and her new favorite being lost in a sea of proliferating rabbits is a vision, whose vision is it?

We do not really know what transpired between 1704, Abigail’s arrival in Queen Anne’s court, and 1711, when Sarah was stripped of her titles and Abigail was made Keeper of the Privy Purse. The Queen’s letters from the period suggest deep intimacy between Anne and Sarah, and many of the details in Lanthimos’s film, especially the Queen’s appreciation early on for Sarah’s loyalty and honesty, are confirmed by them. Still, historians today disagree about the extent to which Sarah’s final fall from grace could be blamed, as she wanted it to be, on Abigail’s scheming or on the Queen’s eventual failure to perceive her qualities. Given these disagreements, it’s fair to say that Lanthimos’s film takes mostly Sarah Churchill’s perspective, nowhere more than in the film’s final scene, where the cousin who turned against her and the Queen who abandoned her receive their rewards.

Of the three main characters of the film, Sarah Churchill is the only one whose motivations never receive a fully satisfying psychological explanation. The Queen wants love and relief, and she often can’t tell the difference between the two. Abigail wants power and security, she too confuses them. But whether Sarah loved Anne or used her to gain power, and whether she wanted power for herself or to run the country that she believed Anne was not capable of ruling, is left undecided. This indecision is further emphasized by Rachel Weisz’s powerful but self-restrained performance, whose subtlety appears so different from Colman’s and Stone’s very spectacularly played characters.

Girolamo Parmigianino’s “Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror” (c. 1524)

But what if this lack of clear motivation for Sarah’s character represents the way in which she doesn’t and perhaps cannot know herself? What if it is here that Lanthimos’s film probes the boundaries of its own psychological realism?

There is another obvious early modern parallel for the fisheye lens in Lanthimos’s film: the most famous mannerist painting, Girolamo Parmigianino’s Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror. A hand magnified by its proximity to the viewer, an angelic face that belongs to the hand and looks calmly and inscrutably into the mirror — and a dimly lit room behind that bends around the painter much like the dark rooms bend in The Favourite.


David Marno is associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches Renaissance poetry and drama. He is author of Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention (Chicago, 2016), a book focusing on John Donne’s poetry and religious techniques of attentiveness.

LARB Contributor

David Marno is associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches Renaissance poetry and drama. He is author of Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention (Chicago, 2016), a book focusing on John Donne’s poetry and religious techniques of attentiveness. He’s currently working on two projects: a volume on prayer and its literary afterlives, and a study of the English Department as a cultural phenomenon.


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