Oh no. He’s not really going to end right here. Is he? IS HE? He is. The thought occurred to me at the conclusion of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster two years ago, and again with Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer last year. Lanthimos’s new one, The Favourite, the opening-night selection of the New York Film Festival, makes for a three-peat. From now on, I propose warning labels on all of his films: “From the director who doesn’t do endings.” If Lanthimos and Paul Thomas Anderson ran a bookstore, they’d spend their days ripping out the last chapter of every novel.
It kills me to say this because Lanthimos is not only a prodigious talent but a strikingly original one. There are moments here and there when you might guess at his cinematic influences, but he is excitingly his own man, right down to the eccentric way he presents intertitles and credits. Each of his three English-language movies is an unnerving black comedy with a surreal or absurdist tone, and I was captivated throughout all of them — then left muttering oaths and imprecations.
The Favourite, bizarre as it is, is on the surface the most conventional of the three: It’s merely a revenge comedy about a lesbian love triangle involving Queen Anne. It’s also, in broad outline, a true story. Olivia Colman plays the middle-aged monarch in the early 18th century, hobbled by gout and barely ambulatory. Her best friend (Rachel Weisz) is Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, wife of a soldier who is forever off fighting the French. The two have been close since childhood and refer to one another with nicknames: “Mrs. Freeman” for Sarah and “Mrs. Morley” for the Queen. As in the movie, Sarah did wield enormous influence at court, even controlling the finances, and as in the movie, things were disrupted by the arrival of Sarah’s impecunious cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). Abigail has been forced out of her comfortable home by circumstances, but she doesn’t intend to remain a scullery maid for very long.
The script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is a delightful war of wits between the two cousins as Sarah and Abigail try to win the queen’s favor and eliminate the other from the royal household. Meanwhile, somewhere out there, there’s a war, reports of which trickle in to the queen from the leading government minister, Godolphin (James Smith), who demands more money for war, and the leader of the opposition, Harley (Nicolas Hoult), who says Great Britain should sue for peace.
All of the global politics, however, are subservient to the household politics, and those in turn depend on what’s happening between the royal sheets. It’s an amusing revisionist take on history, with women actually running the show without ever having to gird up for battle. Though of course they do, in a way, and sometimes they’re even armed. Several scenes take place in a field where Sarah and Abigail go bird shooting. Sarah is a crack shot. But Abigail is a quick learner. A scene in which Abigail not only downs her bird but manages to get a splotch of avian blood on her rival’s face tells us much about the power dynamics and how they’re shifting.
As usual in a Lanthimos film, the performances are top-notch, especially that of the alternately sinister and chummy Weisz, though this film differs from the earlier two in that it abandons the all-deadpan acting style and is funny not just in a macabre sense but also right there on the surface. The language (particularly several hilarious instances of profanity) at times shocks you by turning to today’s demotic, just as a stone-faced dance scene takes a turn toward the spastically funky. In other words, this is the kind of comedy at which you will actually laugh, not a twisted fairy tale like The Lobster and Sacred Deer.
The elegant Lanthimos touch is to stage everything against a wry, oblique attitude, keeping us off guard via field-distorting lenses and dissonant, unsettling musical cues. But what these tools primarily do is create a fantastic sense of suspense, to have us begging to know how he could possibly wrap it all up. The answer is, he can’t, not in a way that satisfies. Lanthimos keeps writing huge checks to the audience, but they keep bouncing.