The Favourite: How to Write Women, Warts and All
‘As a gay woman, I’m expected to be fascinated by a royal period drama with a lesbian love triangle, but I don’t see what the fuss is about.’
- Arwa Mahdawi writes, in a Guardian review of The Favourite.
In a world where so many films devolve into unsubstantial box-ticking rather than real representation to win Oscar brownie points, I can certainly understand this reaction. But for me, The Favourite (2018) doesn’t try to be a “lesbian love triangle” or a hip, anachronistic rendition of Queen Anne’s private life. Unlike others of its kind (I’m looking at you, Birds of Prey and Battle of the Sexes…) this film is not just an attempt to fashion a non-existent gay icon for the sake of pinkwashing. Mahdawi’s opinion, while certainly valid, speaks more to the context of the film’s reception (three gay women as lead characters must surely have been an exciting prospect for the progressive film critic!) than to the aim of the film itself.
The reaction of the director is far more interesting. When asked relentlessly about the film’s relevance to the current events of 2018 (the now seemingly distant days of #MeToo), Yorgos Lanthimos replied that he didn’t have any current trends in mind – he was simply busy making what he hoped was a good film with good female representation, which he rightly pointed out is rare.
On the topic of queerness in the film, Lanthimos remarked: ‘My instinct from the beginning was that I didn't want this to become an issue in the film, for us, like we're trying to make a point out of it ... I didn't even want the characters in the film to be making an issue of it. I just wanted to deal with these three women as human beings. It didn't matter that there were relationships of the same gender. I stopped thinking about that very early on in the process.’
It just so happens that the film does not shy away from the more triggering aspects of female experience in a patriarchal society, that movements such as #MeToo have brought to the forefront in recent years, like rape, assault and sexual slavery. The script also happens to be written by a woman, Deborah Davis, and marks the first time Lanthimos has let someone else’s work directly guide his extremely personal and uncompromising vision. A much appreciated occurrence of an established male film director stepping back and letting someone who knows more than him on a subject speak, then amplifying that voice through collaboration.
This is the most accessible Lanthimos film to date and, personally, my favourite. As a highly-stylised period piece, it could be compared to the likes of Barry Lyndon. It is pictorial, farcical, but not limited to its aesthetic and absurdist humour. The film’s nuanced analysis of the central triangle of love and power delivers a similar thesis to some of Lanthimos’ previous films: in the words of Alissa Wilkinson in her review of the film for Vox, “[In Lanthimos’ films] love, if it exists between humans, is never untainted. It’s mixed with people wanting things like power, position, prestige, or just to not be alone. Anything that looks like love in Lanthimos’s worlds always comes with some kind of ulterior motive.” This exploration of dynamics of power and cruelty is reminiscent of Lars Von Trier’s works - Dogville (2003) in particular - which is coincidentally another rare example of complex female representation.
The Favourite revolves around its three female leads, whose relevance to the story arc is in no way dependent on men. Don’t get me wrong, they are routinely assaulted, hindered, raped by men, reflecting a certain reality of Queen Anne’s time and indeed of our own. But to the plot of the film itself, the men are irrelevant, barely given any personality or distinctive features, only useful in connection to these strong female leads, as props or motives. Sound familiar? As revealed by the “Bechdel test” (borne out of a comic strip about two lesbian friends) and its variants, an alarmingly small minority of mainstream films feature named female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. That minority shrinks even more if you remove babies and marriage as a subject of discussion.
The imagistic character credits in The Favourite, “Wanking Man” and “Nude Pomegranate Tory”, turn this on its head: it is the men in this film who are comic and decorative, their frilly suits and heavy makeup contrasting with the women’s monochrome sobriety of costume. As Alissa Wilkinson points out, ‘In Anne’s court, men can be advantageous pawns, but to ask them to do much more than bicker, race ducks, and play stupid games will lead to nothing good.’
Despite this amusing gender inversion, The Favourite is not simplistic in its feminism. Its moral is not that women are good and interesting and maybe sometimes deserve some agency, it is a critique of power hierarchies, no matter who happens to be at the helm. Yet Queen Anne, and her lovers Abigail and Sarah are never essentialised. No simple angel/devil or mother/whore dichotomy can be drawn between them. Sarah isn’t just a political intrigante, her love for Anne and patriotism turn out to be genuine. Abigail is not innately evil, but she is corrupted by Sarah’s own distrust and poor treatment of her, and ends up surpassing her Machiavellian teacher in ruthlessness, only to find there is no happiness in that. Anne is not just a spoiled, ignorant child, she knows how to press her favourites’ buttons and possesses a depth of grief and emotion that no amount of badger-like make-up can cover.
The film’s creators and actors share this point of view. To those who criticised the film for painting the leading women in overly dark and degrading tones, or creating yet another “evil femme fatale” archetype, Lanthimos said he chose to develop these characters because their power seems “universal and timeless”. Olivia Colman, who portrayed Queen Anne, responds: "How can it set women back to prove that women fart and vomit and hate and love and do all the things men do? All human beings are the same. We're all multifaceted, many-layered, disgusting and gorgeous and powerful and weak and filthy and brilliant. That's what's nice [about The Favourite]. It doesn't make women an old-fashioned thing of delicacy.”
As a person who has never felt comfortable inside any form of gender binary, that’s exactly how I like my characters, especially those who present the same gender as me: human and universal.
Permanently stranded between Russia, France and the UK, Sasha is a weird amalgamation whose tastes in visual media range from Zviagintsev and post-impressionism, to Marvel and motivational YouTube channels. After a degree in Comparative Literature, they’re transitioning towards working in social outreach and counselling, but most of the time they just want to move to an anarchist farming commune and/or become a full-time cat.