If you are online in 2018, or performing yourself elsewhere, you will be familiar with the phrase “commit to the bit.” It’s an expression occupying the pregnant air between “leaning in” to oneself and betraying one’s heart. It connotes a certain weariness with the extravagant exigencies of choice, and a paradoxical willingness to act. As in, “At this point who can even tell if I enjoyed A Star Is Born, but I’m committing to the bit.” Or “locked myself in the bathroom at my own birthday party and downed half a bottle of mouthwash, really committing to the bit.” The player acts against or in excess of their self and never quite makes up their mind as to which role they have a preference for.
This is an aspect of situation and character often emphasized in Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s films, and with his third feature film in English (his seventh overall), The Favourite, he has found an even more spectacular form. The setting is a dimly lit and baroquely dressed royal grounds where two women of insecure titles vie for the love and attentions of the tempestuous, unfocused English Queen. The political era is early 18th century, as war continues between England and France in a reimagining of Queen Anne’s court. The lines are delivered in Lanthimos’ trademark flat, corseted rhythm, as if drained of both meaning and blood.
The plot is, more or less, an elaboration upon documented historical figures and intrigues. At the film’s start, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) commands, in matters of politics and love, the ear and the whole body of the queen. Sarah’s aim is swift and sure, as she swoops from the hunting grounds, to the war rooms, to the queen’s bedchambers. What she seems to be after is strength in war—a harsh land tax on her majesty’s subjects to fund an unyielding offense against the enemy. Yet, what she desires desperately is strength for herself, an unwavering undertaking of ego and insecurity to which entire nations are required to pay fealty. Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) arrives at the palace—dispossessed, mud-caked, frighteningly angelic—and makes quick work of recommending herself to Queen Anne. Sarah, in an effortless performance of her nature, curtseys to the laws of power and welcomes Abigail to the court’s intimacies as a sister in arms. “I have a thing for the weak,” Sarah tells Abigail, as she begins to climb the regal ranks, misjudging in her clever remark the power vested in both Abigail and Anne.
The Favourite walks a taut, thrilling line between humor and suffering. As in The Lobster (2015), in which single adults are housed in a brutal compound where they must find a mate or be turned into an animal, and The Killing of a Sacred Dear (2017), where a heart surgeon must select one of his nuclear family members to murder in order to lift a curse, love is a matter of life and death. Queen Anne is introduced as a befuddling mad queen. Portrayed with injured ecstasy by Olivia Colman, it appears at once that her favor is bestowed like winds upon an ocean. It is only as the film wears on that the network of loyalty, manipulation, and tragedy that determines her style of mastery reveals itself. She isn’t weak, but she’s trouble (the three female leads, all excellent, have this in common), the embodiment of a nation’s pent-up id.
Her whims include mud baths, rabbit petting, lobster racing, and sex with her lady consorts, which she alternately refers to in gourmandizing terms (a taste, a bite, salty) and “playing whist.” By the same logic, her pains (aching legs, a litany of miscarriages, profound loneliness) are performed with wrenching acuity. She screams, and the camera shows us in urgent, pursuant shots how the whole political scene rushes toward her. The flurry of servile attention is foregrounded by a soundtrack that blends classical melodies with sharp instrumental plunks akin to hell’s own faucet dripping.
Toward the end of the film, Anne says of her wounds, “One just walks around with them and sometimes feels them filling with blood,” a sentiment that evokes the film’s horror: That after all this plotting, this worrying over love’s deceptions, violence can no longer be felt. It simply fills a space, like oxygen expanding an actor’s lungs. In The Favourite, this violence is particularly inflicted upon women. Rape is discussed lightheartedly; Abigail and Sarah endure terrible beatings; the queen roils in all the ways her body has betrayed her. Watching the film, I was reminded of the moment in Dangerous Liasons when Vicomte de Valmont asks fellow villain Marquise de Merteuil, “I often wonder how you manage to invent yourself.” Her response: “Well, I had no choice, did I? I’m a woman. Women are obliged to be far more skillful than men. You can ruin our reputation and our life with a few well-chosen words. So, of course, I had to invent, not only myself, but ways of escape no one has ever thought of before.”
Alexandra Kleeman’s wonderful profile of Lanathimos for the New York Times states that he started out his career in the advertising industry, filming TV commercials, and it was there, in the lead-up to impending financial crisis, that he met his longtime writing collaborator, Efthimis Filippou. This seems right, for his filmmaking has a flashy, carnal exuberance, a fascination with the grotesque, that can be honed by the need to sell a product on behalf of empire. The stilted, pathologically detached discussions on matters of great global and personal importance recall the textual opacity of Don DeLillo’s dialogue in his novel Players (1977), about disaffected conformists who work in an American palace: the New York Stock Exchange. I appreciate Lanthimos’s films for the same reason I was drawn to Players: once the speech pattern latches on to your thought, you start to notice pieces of it all around you, in all kinds of situations. Like how the tone of voice you adopt to order coffee is recycled for seeming professional around strangers, or even in the most diplomatic intimacies with friends. How language protects us, and flinches.