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Beastly: The Bad Women of ‘The Favourite’

Element Pictures/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Emma Stone as Abigail Masham in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, 2018

As with feminist “leaning in,” equal opportunity villainy often backfires. When a villain is marked as female, her wrongdoing often gets tangled up with stereotypes. The implication is either that she is evil because she is female, or that her evil is itself feminine: trifling, petty, minor, laughable. This doesn’t just reinforce misogyny; it’s also deeply boring. The question of why we do bad things—against our own interests, those of others, of society—is fascinating. Relegating the answer to biology, to the genetic contingency of sex, is dull. It reduces the greatest subject of tragedy to the tautological moral of a beastly fable: A leopard cannot change its spots. “It is my nature,” said the Scorpion. To avoid this vicious circle, many recent women-centered films overcompensate, succumbing to lukewarm tokenism, portentous plots, neutered sexuality, and pulled punches both literal (no catfights) and figurative (no misandry). They manage to skirt the usual stereotypes of cattiness, victimhood, hysteria, sluttiness, and so on, but they miss all the depth and contradiction of genuine vice.

Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite dispenses with this bind altogether. Set in England of the early 1700s, it tells the semi-true story of Queen Anne and the two women, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham, who competed for that titular designation in her court. The film centers these villainous women without making a fuss about it; there are important and powerful men floating about, but they are thrillingly marginal to the action. One can imagine The Favourite being compared to All About Eve or Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Mrs Brown, but this is no melodramatic storm in a teacup, nor is it a satirical restoration comedy about the decadent pranks of the rich, nor a stuffy drama about dignified women making compromises for love. As Lanthimos puts it, “I saw this opportunity of creating these very complex female characters that you rarely see onscreen.” He’s right. I have never seen a film like The Favourite: a story about three bad women—bad in very different, very interesting ways—whose badness both makes and breaks the relationships between them.

Queen Anne is badly behaved. “You’re such a child,” Sarah complains. The Queen sulks, she storms, she kicks. She is easily wounded and just as easily delighted. She giggles, she moans, she weeps. But she isn’t a flibbertigibbet or a hysteric. It’s as if King Lear were a woman, which is to say there is gravitas to her quicksilver changes. At one point, unsure how to deliver a new bill to Parliament, she turns in stuttering increments away from the podium, then plunges facedown to the ground. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she says helplessly. Olivia Colman gives a virtuoso performance. Its more obvious accomplishments—like her commitment to playing the vehement mood swings and physical distortions wrought by the Queen’s gout and, later, her strokes—may obscure its subtler and deeply moving achievements of expression. Lanthimos often zooms in slowly on her eyes, where we glimpse a vast sea of grief brimming. Its seventeen causes are stated outright: “Some were born as blood, some without breath. Some were with me for a very brief time.” Anne keeps seventeen rabbits as pets (fiction), for each of the children she lost to miscarriage and illness (fact). Yet the film does not reduce the Queen to her mourning. She is not broken by these reminders of her dead children but rather by encounters with beauty and joy: watching a dance, listening to music.

Sarah Churchill is bad-tempered. The Queen’s first favorite is cold and critical and cruel. The film opens with the Queen asking Sarah to say hello to “the little ones,” the seventeen rabbits, at this stage innocent of maternal symbolism. “No,” Sarah refuses promptly. “It is macabre.” The Queen protests that Sarah does not love her, to which she replies: “Love has limits.” She shows her true colors when she later tells a group of men: “There is no limit to love of country.” Sarah is a politician—as much as a woman other than the Queen could be in that era—and her machinations are all oriented toward maintaining her purse and her power. She gets her husband, Lord Marlborough, sent to war to be a hero, and procures a tax hike to pay for it by pulling strings with the Queen. While they are lovers—they share the longest on-screen kiss—their childhood friendship is the true cauldron of feeling between them. Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman (their pet names for each other) are like Lenù and Lila of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet (now an HBO miniseries): they are equals who love and hate each other, and who dominate and submit to each other in turn. Cast aside by the Queen, pleading her case through a door, Sarah cries, “I will not lie. That is love!” Rachel Weisz’s chilly, cutting charm is ideal for the role but it pales in comparison to the third bad woman, played by Emma Stone, who seems to crack the screen open with light every time she appears on it.

Abigail Masham has bad intentions. We don’t suspect them right away; we’re too busy pitying and enjoying her. She’s Sarah’s canny, witty, impoverished cousin, whose father lost her in a game of whist to a “balloon-shaped German with a thin cock.” Abigail escapes a life of “whoredom” by procuring a position as a cleaner in the palace. Everyone seems to play tricks on her: she’s shoved more than once into a ditch; she’s sent in to meet lords and ladies while she’s covered in mud; the servants neglect to mention that she needs gloves to handle a bucket of lye (an intentional pun). She rides out to the woods to collect a certain herb—we think it’s for her scalded hands until she bullies her way into the royal bedchambers and applies it to the Queen’s gouty legs. The rubbing of legs becomes a conduit and metaphor for their affair: Abigail is tender and caring and sweetly subservient: “I do not want her to think I wish anything from her.” Through manipulations both physical and emotional, Abigail wins the Queen’s heart and Sarah’s confidence. All her charming pratfalls and antics distract us, but Abigail is not to be underestimated. She is hellbent on usurping Sarah as the Queen’s favorite, on becoming a lady again, on being “safe” from the cruelty of being poor.

The triangle clarifies as it grows taut: Abigail’s love is steeped in sweet lies; Sarah’s in caustic truths; the Queen is simply insatiable for it. But these three bad women are not in thrall to their feelings. “You are enjoying this!” Sarah chides Anne, thinking Abigail merely an instrument of jealousy, “You have made your point.” Anne kisses her happily: “Perhaps I was not making a point.” The Queen wants love and devotion from both her favorites, and the film here hints at a shape, even a balance, of desire beyond binaries. The cousins will not oblige this polyamory, however, or perhaps their respective desires simply cannot be reconciled. Their battle is sometimes literal—books become weapons and there’s even a Chekhov’s gun, which never goes off, or perhaps only obliquely. “Oh my God, you really think you’ve won,” Sarah laughs incredulously. “Haven’t I?” Abigail smirks. But by the film’s final sequence, an exquisitely harrowing bedroom scene between the Queen and her new favorite, we have come to understand Sarah’s parting words: “We were playing very different games.”

Element Pictures/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill and Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in Lanthimos’s The Favourite, 2018

As you might have guessed, the film is delightfully cavalier when it comes to the facts of eighteenth-century England—“Some of the things in the film are accurate and a lot aren’t,” Lanthimos says. He emphasizes this willful anachronism with cinematography: fish-eye lenses and spinning cameras tilt and warp the palatial setting, lending claustrophobic and giddy effects to scenes filmed in natural light. While this movement is modern, the film’s palette is old-fashioned, silvery and crystalline in the daytime and as though painted by Rembrandt or Caravaggio at night—gold flames often crackle and glow over the pitch-black screen. There are bustles and bustiers but in metallic and leather and denim fabrics, textured with beads or fur or bows, striated into dizzying geometric patterns. A hilarious dance scene evolves from quaint ballroom circling to lifts and spins to the Soul Train line. Historical events are distorted in similar fashion. The political intrigues of the day—the Whigs and the Tories, the War of the Spanish Succession—appear but only in scattershot fashion, and mostly to set the stakes for the personal intrigues between the women. All three were married to men but there is no attempt in the film to fix their identities as bisexuals or as closeted lesbians. The use of sex to win over the Queen has some historical basis—Sarah wrote a letter disapproving of Anne’s “strange and unaccountable” passion for “such a woman” as Abigail. But it is doubtful that the Queen ever said “Fuck me” to Sarah or “I like the way she puts her tongue inside me” of Abigail. The bracing lack of euphemism doesn’t feel wrong, though: indeed, so rarely is female desire expressed with such frankness on screen that you actually wonder for a moment if they spoke like that back then.

In short, it is pointless to debate whether the portrayal of women in the film is accurate. This is one way Lanthimos escapes that twenty-first century bind of representation: femme fatale versus femme futile. Anachronism creates a kind of speculative space—the alternate history or the counterfactual—where norms of gender and sexuality are not overturned, exactly, but suspended, set into an unpredictable, free-floating dynamic. Take the perennial question of beauty. “A man must look pretty,” one man coaches another in courtship, only for a woman to smear his makeup and snatch his fancy wig. The women barely wear makeup and when they do, it’s chalky and thin, pointedly bad. “You look like a badger,” Sarah tells the Queen, accurately, and opens a mirror to show her. “Badger,” Anne confirms sulkily, near tears, then promptly rages at a pageboy for looking at her.

Or take the transhistorical threat of rape. Lord Masham bursts into Abigail’s quarters at night and finds her lying on the bed. “Are you here to seduce me or to rape me?” she asks drolly. “I am a gentleman!” he protests. “So rape then,” she deadpans and plays dead. Sarah, recovering in a brothel from injuries caused by Abigail’s treachery, sends for a member of Parliament to come and secure her release. “Did they rape you?” he asks, scandalized. “No, they didn’t,” she says matter-of-factly, “but gainful employment is on offer should I need it.” These scenes do not play the “rape card,” but nor do they dismiss fear of rape as hysterical. They suggest instead the reality for women: rape is everywhere; rape is a threat; rape is built into the “gentler” and “business” institutions of society.

The Queen is where these realms overlap, the body politic where flesh and state coincide. She banishes Sarah from the palace, crying out: “They would hurt us, our country, the Queen.” Anne’s hurt is fundamental. It is where the film begins and ends, and out of this seemingly depthless pit comes great pathos but also great humor. And I think this is the other way the film escapes the bind of female villainy: by drawing comic and tragic sensibilities together. The screenplay of The Favourite, by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, is funny but uncomfortably so—the audience’s laughter sounded more like gunfire than a rain shower. A sense of tragedy is built into the film’s aesthetics: the sounds or shots of a subsequent scene often play before the current action in the plot has prompted it, so that consequence preempts cause, and events—foreshadowed through formal symmetries—come to feel fated, predetermined. Lanthimos reverses the oft-cited equation that comedy is tragedy plus time. The Favourite feels like a comedy that goes on just long enough that it devolves into tragedy.

One of Lanthimos’s signature techniques for creating this uncanny bleed of emotion is through animals (consider just the titles of his previous films). The Favourite is littered with them: vipers, flies, badgers, pigeons, deer, horses, wolves, lobsters, and a valuable “racing” duck named Horatio are all figured in relation to humans on screen or in speech. Anne’s rabbits, “the little ones,” are especially eerie and important. They are macabre, as Sarah says, but also lovely, as Abigail says. Watching them on screen provokes a strange combination of feelings in us: tenderness, amusement, fear, wonder, curiosity. In other words, they signify the complex, contradictory, and unaccountable feelings we have about real women. Strangely enough, it may be through its beasts that The Favourite makes the strongest case that women are, in fact, humans.


Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite is now in theaters.