Playing Favorites and Pushing Limits in the Court of Queen Anne

Playing Favorites and Pushing Limits in the Court of Queen Anne December 8, 2018

The Favourite is a monstrously satisfying movie. This tale of eighteenth-century intrigue in the British royal court has everything: melodrama, self-deception, scheming; opportunistic lesbianism (and maybe other kinds); shooting, poison, slap-kick-kiss; lords in giant fluffy wigs and beauty marks racing ducks. Heartbreak. Ah, I loved this thing, it gave me everything I wanted, including a few things I hadn’t anticipated wanting.

Queen Anne (Olivia Colman–all three of the leads are terrific) is an irresolute monarch, controlled by her “favorite” Sarah Churchill, Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), and haunted by an awful personal sorrow alluded to in the very first lines of the film but only explained quite a bit later. As the War of the Spanish Succession heats up, a new face appears at court: Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a lady fallen on hard times, who starts out as a servant but rapidly schemes her way into the queen’s favor–and bed. (For Catholic viewers I should note that only the very last scene struck me as explicit or prurient, and even this scene leans pornographic more by allusion (what it shows is a synecdoche for a certain kind of bad sex) than by display.)

This is a very harsh comedy, in which the men get a real kick out of saying the words, “I’ll have you stripped and whipped,” curling their painted lips all around those promises. In style Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster! yes.) goes for a lot of long shots, showing all the little people these big people have to walk past on their way to their big emotions and catastrophes, and a lot of silhouettes against glowing windows. The camera is just a little frantic and more than a little woozy.

In one of the very first exchanges between the Queen and Sarah, Sarah says (lightly), “Love has limits.” And the Queen ripostes that it shouldn’t. This is a movie about pushing limits–the audience’s, as well as the characters’–and finding where the limit truly lies.

Let’s start with the limits of gender. This is a film about a time when men were peacocks and women–at least these women–were political animals with the self-defense skills of a Model Mugging graduate. There’s a brilliant bit where Abigail confronts a dangerous suitor and, assessing his heavy makeup and giant mass of artificial curls, stalks toward him and says she’d like to know what he looks like under all that. She strips the wig off and wears it, and it’s an ’80s rape-romance novel trope turned inside-out, it’s hilarious and not a little hot, and when she’s done with him politically she shoves his wig back into his hand and shoves him out the door. Here’s your wig, what’s your hurry?

And yet The Favourite is honest about the limits of this gender play. There are things only men will know: Only men are soldiers here, for example, though the women fight their own often physical battles. And there are things only women know: hard things. What Peter Brown called “the carnage of the marriage-bed” is here; and there’s that moment when we cut in abruptly on Abigail musing to the Queen, “I think the hardest thing was the rapes.”

(Tim Markatos, with whom I saw this film, suggests that it’s set in a society before sexual orientation, and I think that’s right. You can see the kernel from which a concept of sexual orientation might grow: Sarah’s masculine dress, for example–her shooting clothes are to die for–suggests that she is a kind of person attuned to other women both emotionally and sexually. And yet nobody actually acts as if there are kinds of people when it comes to sex. The only kinds of people are the ones who will do what they have to do to get safety and success, and the ones who won’t. Marriage is a part of life and occasionally even an arena of affection, not a referendum on who you inherently are.)

This is a movie in which love is just another pork-barrel project (sorry). Love is another word for sex and for flattery; it’s just another way the powerful get some comfort, their servants gain some influence, and their dependents scrounge some safety. All of the sex is so distorted by power differentials that nobody can tell anymore what love might look like–and that’s just the way they like it. Their great aphrodisiacs are power and pity. If it were healthy and equal I doubt these toothy little vixens would be interested. They’re utterly crosswise to our own moralistic age of healthy communication. They are not safe, not sane, and not particularly consensual.

And The Favourite lets them howl rampant over their own hearts–for a little while. The film lets us luxuriate in these bad people’s bad affairs, it feeds our delectation of and identification with their sins and self-absorption. And then it shows us how badly unlove will damage you. There’s at least one sincere lover in this triangle, though I’m not sure she ever wanted to be sincere. Because she loved, her destruction is cleaner than the others’. The other two end in a serpentine knot of cruelty, disappointment, loathing self and other; and not even enjoying the sex.

The greatest limit the movie explores is the formal limit of comedy. People laughed throughout this film. I laughed! But it’s heartbreaking. Anne is selfish, insecure, depressed. She screams at people who remind her of her losses. She resorts to her bedchamber, demanding to be wheeled to safety with the defeated command, “Take me back.” There’s a scene where a Tory politician chats with her at a party; he has the world’s most enormous embroidered white cuffs on his sleeves, and she has lovely stockings stained with blood from her unexplained, unhealing leg wounds. She’s the sovereign head of an empire and perhaps the most helpless character in the film. Sarah is an acute political macher who only notices the trouble in her personal life once it’s too late. Abigail the ingenue is damaged, maybe beyond repair.

Lanthimos plays their heartbreak scenes so seriously that they become melodrama. The music shrieks, the candle staggers in the hand of the betrayed lover, the face shows horror… and the audience laughs, although I don’t think I laughed then. Lanthimos walks right up to the edge of mocking his characters for having feelings, and us for having feelings about them, but unlike e.g. Kevin “Tusk” Smith, he doesn’t, I think, tip over into contempt. The love and pain they feel is real, even if yes, they should have known better. And you’ll laugh at them and mourn for them and see yourself in them, even at that last scene, which will leave you open-mouthed from its dual crescendo of pathos and bathos.

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