**1/2 out of ****
(for strong sexual content, nudity, and strong language)
Released: December 14, 2018
Runtime: 119 minutes
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicolas Hoult, Mark Gatiss, Joe Alwyn
Director Yorgos Lanthimos isn’t just a nihilist; he’s a masochist.
The filmmaker behind the bleakest films of the past decade (most recently The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Lanthimos is a polarizing figure who garners near-universal acclaim among critics yet proves to be a tough sit for many audiences.
It’s fitting, then, that my own relationship to his work is so tortured. Tortured being the key word here, as that’s how Lanthimos likes to make his characters feel – and be.
Indeed, his films are like torture porn of the psyche (with dashes of flagellation, self-imposed and otherwise), grueling fables that are, nevertheless, crafted with searing cinematic command, distinct and set apart from his contemporaries. The experience of each is visceral, palpable, and unshakeable.
Yet while Lanthimos acolytes find that his dark satirical bent helps to leaven (or even elevate) his painful parables, I can’t help but feel that the farce just makes them more sick. There’s no point to his sadism, other than to drill down again and again into how inherently, unredemptively cruel he finds the human heart to be.
But rather than lament that fact, Lanthimos seems to get off on it. He’s like a high brow art house sociopath.
The Favourite is no different. It wallows in Yorgos’ fetish for human pain, torment, and humiliation.
It is, however, the first period piece for Lanthimos, and also the first time he’s directed a script he hasn’t written. Based on the 18th Century palace intrigue between England’s Queen Anne, her confidante Sarah, and Sarah’s younger cousin Abigail who comes between them, Lanthimos invigorates the staid propriety of regal dramas with a comic spark and devious treachery that is relentlessly compelling.
No doubt he takes liberties often and to the extreme, starting with the root of truth, mixing it with rumors (a.k.a. a lesbian love triangle), then blowing it all up with vicious glee. He also blends ornate historical accuracy with anachronistic vulgarity (an escalating use of the “C” word being the most crass) for a malicious tale that’s equal parts nasty and lush.
Yorgos’ use of camera and music is particularly effective. Visually, the queasy scope of wide angle fish-eye lenses (particularly in closed spaces) is an inspired stroke. What initially feels like a gimmick becomes an unnerving way to envisage everyone’s distorted scruples, then the eerie, dread-filled strikes of stringed instruments magnify the psychological horror.
The actress trio at the heart of this vindictive chamber piece is a three-fold powerhouse: Olivia Colman as the tragedy-beset Queen, and Oscar winners Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as the sparring cousins Sarah and Abigail.
All three are magnetic and volatile in their own way, but Stone is the standout; her Abigail is a conniving wild card (and, one suspects, a Lanthimos surrogate of sorts). Even so, as Abigail weaves her insidious schemes, Colman and Weisz reveal new, darker, sadder layers to their own characters – in what they’re willing to say, consider, threaten, and do – throughout the escalating second hour.
Yet as you hold out hope that there’ll be a point to this debasing endurance test, you come to find out that there isn’t. For Yorgos, the malice justifies the means. For the viewer, it siphons darkness into the soul.
Ultimately, The Favourite (like all Lanthimos movies before it) is like a diorama in which Lanthimos can stage his actor dolls in increasingly savage scales of indignity and degradation.
A true auteur, he has to be taken seriously as cinematic artist, but it neither justifies or vindicates his exultant inhumanity and its punishing perversions, leaving us cold (even abused) as the film abruptly ends, the director having satisfied himself and his indulgent deviancy.