the body politics of The Favourite
About a month before winning an Academy Award for her astonishing portrayal of Queen Anne (1665-1714), Olivia Colman made it clear that her role in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (2018) was not just an unconventional depiction of an eighteenth-century English leader, but also a biting piece of contemporary political commentary. Addressing a crowd at the Palm Springs Festival, Colman described the queen as “someone in whom resides all the madness, frustration…and instability of a powerful person unfit for the job.” [open endnotes in new window] Colman, who was speaking to a largely American audience that had themselves been living under a reckless president for almost two years, then quipped, “I don’t know if you know anyone like that.”
Despite the droll quality of her remark, this essay takes seriously Colman’s understanding of The Favourite as a reflection on current reactionary political movements across the globe, especially the leaders of those movements. For, while they are “unfit for the job” of managing the liberal institutions on which their countries’ political systems are built, these outlandish, sometimes ludicrous figures are playing a different game, one in which individual expressions of domination license the restoration of a strict social hierarchy. Among its many characteristics, this global reemergence of authoritarianism has accentuated a tenet of conservative ideology that was crucial to its perpetuation from the eighteenth century through today: the ranking of and discrimination between persons at the visceral level of the body. As reactionaries respond to what they see as modest gains in social equality, they seem to abandon the “modern” administrative tactics of persuasion or rationality—even of the most coercive variety—and instead embrace a politics based on a strict taxonomy of physical worthiness and vitality.
But the corporeal power of the conservative figurehead is not literal; it does not mean that the leader has the most formidable body, through which they command the respect of the masses. (In fact, many of these leaders seem to be physically unimpressive.) Instead, the strength of the leader manifests itself through the mythos of their command over the natural world and, by extension, their sovereignty over a host of natural beings that exist to serve them. Indeed, if “nature” has long been a keyword for the conservative desire to constrain social change at any cost, then the conservative figurehead is also the ruler of nature itself, its guiding force, as well as the vessel through which it flows.
In this essay, I contend that Lanthimos’s satiric film dramatizes this political dynamic in two different ways. First, The Favourite seems to caricature the ideology of conservative restoration by focusing on a figurehead of the original English Restoration, Queen Anne. One of the period’s later monarchs—and a paragon of its literature and culture—Anne represents in Lanthimos’s portrayal a grotesque version of “natural sovereignty,” with a body that is deteriorating (but also desired by her closest advisers), and a domain that extends over a broad range of human and non-human animals (and, oftentimes, creatures whose existence spans both categories). For Lanthimos, Anne also seems to represent—and to legitimate historically—one of the director’s primary cinematic concerns: the animal as a metaphor for kinship and social affiliation, even of the most perverse varieties. However, while The Favourite sensationalizes England’s original monarchial restoration and the premises of a broader conservative ideology—the rejection of “rational” persuasion in favor of sheer affect and desire; the mythologizing of the sovereign through her supremacy in all realms of life—then the film also comments on our twenty-first-century revival of authoritarian nationalism, many varieties of which have a pseudo-monarchist character. In its second horizon of meaning, then, the film addresses the current political moment through its historical depiction of restoration, attributing to both present and past versions of tyranny a kind of gross, physicalized absurdity.
Popular critics have been split on whether to call the film an accurate period piece or an eccentric, hyper-stylized vision of aristocratic excess, something along the lines of Sophia Coppola’s MTV-inspired Marie Antoinette (2006) or Baz Luhrmann’s quick-cutting, SoCal Romeo + Juliet (1996). My reading, however, addresses both interpretations, crediting Lanthimos with an authentic portrayal of eighteenth-century royalist intemperance, as well as modern despotism. Indeed, the genre of the film is similarly debatable: The Favourite appears to be at once a picaresque novel adaptation, absurd satire, and melodramatic LGBTQ+ three-hander. In it, a seemingly uncultured (and, in her opening scene, literally muck-covered) ingenue named Abigail Hill (played by Emma Stone), enters Anne’s court as a lowly kitchen hand and works her way into the center of the queen’s inner circle, relying on a combination of social perception and sexual manipulation to become the handmaiden—and, eventually, lover—of the queen.
Standing in Abigail’s way is her own cousin, Anne’s long-time adviser and paramour Sarah Churchill (played with Machiavellian relish by Rachel Weisz). Originally the focus of Anne’s affections, Sarah wages a proxy battle against Abigail to maintain her place in the court’s innermost sanctum, a spatial metaphor for the queen’s trust. And yet, as Abigail slowly wins over Anne, she moves closer to the heart of that court, the royal bedroom, while Sarah is pushed further out, eventually ending up in a dank country brothel, a fitting inversion of the sexual power play she has made on the queen. This queer love triangle between Anne, Sarah, and Abigail permits Lanthimos to center the queen’s body as the contested territory for political aspiration. While this plot can feel surprisingly modern, as it equates gay eroticism with social-climbing and courtly influence, it also literalizes an older, recurrent dynamic of conservative revival, in which the sentiments, passions, and appetites overtake reason and cerebral cunning.
In other words, by representing both historical and contemporary versions of conservative restoration, The Favourite visualizes the clash of two different forms of political power. It reveals a familiar, “modern” form of power based on knowledge, strategy, and the canny manipulation of the interests and needs of others. But, ultimately, the film revels in a revanchist form of power based on the rejection of reason, overt expressions of physical dominance, and an assiduous sorting of bodies, a ranking system that sometimes mimics—but also scrambles—the classic taxonomy between human and non-human animals.
Lanthimos generates this ideological conflict in three ways, which I will address sequentially in this essay. First, through innovative camerawork and production choices, Lanthimos depicts the state as constructed through illicitly-acquired knowledge about subjects and rivals; the director equates authority with voyeurism and clandestine sight. But other shots—which display all sorts of visceral activity and physical urges—reveal sovereignty as the ability to fulfill (and neglect) carnal instincts and desires, a power that ultimately trumps any information about people or the way they can be manipulated. Next, in keeping with its sensational images, the film demonstrates the power inherent in the physical body of the monarch herself, depicting Anne—a primary figurehead for entailed authority—as a being whose apex physical presence allows her to arbitrate between all creatures, human or otherwise. In turn, Colman’s intensely corporeal portrayal of the Queen seems to evoke the contemporaneous writing on politics and animal nature found in John Locke and Alexander Pope. Finally, in focusing on the body and whimsical desires of the monarch, the film revitalizes the concept of conservative restoration, where certain groups are given arbitrary status because of their bodies, so that other groups who have worked to achieve equality will be forced back into subservience. Like the best satires, the film parodies this method of conservative social engineering so that we take it seriously in our own age.
The view of power
|Cinematographer Robbie Ryan used a 6mm fisheye lens to warp the view of the landscapes and palace grounds, making the outdoors feel claustrophobic. These curved shots may also imply the political omniscience that the film’s many voyeurs wish to achieve.|
In The Favourite, the screen regularly curves and warps around a single focal point. The 6mm fisheye lens employed by cinematographer Robbie Ryan turns sprawling palatial courtyards and kitchens, symbols for the accumulated decadence of the late English Restoration, into tight pockets of surveillance. In contrast with one of the film’s clearest predecessors, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975)—another wry take on eighteenth-century social-climbing—Lanthimos’s vast panoramas of the countryside are claustrophobic, not grand and picturesque.
|A contrast between establishing shots in The Favourite and Barry Lyndon, a palpable influence on Lanthimos’s film. In Barry Lyndon, an entrance into the palace conveys broad, boundless opportunity; in The Favourite, the palatial grounds offer an enveloping symmetry, where one cannot escape the machinations of rivals.|
Other visual tactics have the effect of “folding” characters into their backgrounds. While Ryan uses the wide shot to convey the enormity of royal ballrooms and hallways, he regularly does so with single figures inhabiting the frame. Enveloped by space and decorative patterns, characters sometimes seem to hide within the shot itself, making them agents of clandestine affairs, rather than focal points in a dramatic narrative. However, these compositions can have the opposite effect. By focusing on single characters that seem to be overtaken by their surroundings, Lanthimos places viewers in the position to spot illicit activities and private reactions within the grander context of royal space, where civic decisions are made. Indeed, there are other production choices that place audience members in the role of intimate confidant, much like Sarah and Abigail. Throughout, placards of wry text cut the film into various chapters, mimicking the early printed book and putting viewers into a similar position as the secluded, individual reader. Even the font kerning on the title cards and credits emphasizes isolation, as letters within single words are sometimes stretched apart from one another, split across margins, or placed on entirely different lines.
|Ryan also used the fisheye lens to “bend” wide shots of interiors around single bodies, implying the vast space in which characters could hide, as well as the opportunities for espionage, an act in which we are also invited to participate as clandestine viewers.|