Fish-eye lenses are a hack filmmaker’s favorite gimmick, and Yorgos Lanthimos can’t seem to use enough of them in The Favourite, his satire of 18th-century British royals. He, along with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, offers funhouse-mirror portraits of the decadent ruling class: gout-stricken Queen Anne (Olivia Colman); her scheming confidante Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz); and Sarah’s counter-conniving cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), who, after insolvency, is anxious to scheme her way back into power. These proto-feminists, each skilled in anachronistic modern profanity, practice ruthless political amorality — and cunnilingus. Lanthimos titillates, by way of indulging contemporary fascination with celebrity, here represented by upper-class perversions, the legacy of depraved Western history.
Lanthimos always goes for distortion. His reputation (based on the unwatchable amoral tales Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is based on fake avant-garde narrative experimentation. But any smart-aleck high-school film nerd can tell you that Lanthimos is copying Kubrick, the fish-eye lenses maestro, who couldn’t resist preening technology to underscore his misanthropic tales. Lanthimos outlived Kubrick and so gives us the fish-eye cliché to reassure Millennial viewers that it’s okay to laugh at people who are targets of their envy and disdain.
If Kubrick’s 17th-century-set Barry Lyndon flaunted all his resources of cinematic expertise merely to satirize chilly inhumanity, making an evil masterpiece, then The Favourite is merely a wicked stunt. It’s divided into eight pseudo-literary segments: “This mud stinks,” “I do fear confusion and accidents,” “What an outfit,” “A minor hitch,” “What If I should fall asleep and slip under?,” “Stop infection,” “Leave that. I like it,” “I dreamt I stabbed you in the eye.” These sardonic titles hint at the games played among Anne, Sarah, and Abigail — they’re period versions of well-dressed but vulgar, Kardashian-style vanity.
The Favourite’s period details are facetious. A ballroom scene of a remorseless Sarah, Vogue-dancing at a court ball, encourages both hipness and derision. Lanthimos and his screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara enjoy depicting British history with contumely. Their Kubrickian coldness comes from haughtiness and contempt: Abigail is introduced in a scene of public lewdness then trips out of a carriage into manure; Anne’s midlife caricature features her bizarre mothering of pet rabbits; Sarah gets tricked into an abduction that leaves her hideously scarred yet still vengeful.
This sick parody of political ambition suggests a Vice Media version of a corrupted Merchant Ivory film — Anglophilia that is fascinated by the worst of British eccentricity. A reference to Jonathan Swift’s newspaper is rather inapposite for this kind of vulgar, inhumane satire; it’s conceived to lower political awareness and merely laugh at debauchery. The actresses’ show-off performances range from skilled to hostile to bratty, although Colman imitates a stroke victim’s pathos and bawdiness convincingly. Judi Dench might approve.
The Favourite is the opposite of a zany romp; it’s berserk Restoration farce (if anyone remembers what that is), and yet we’re meant to enjoy all the repellent skullduggery. Does gloating over comic sickness and melodramatic evil heal our current political and moral crises? Or is Lanthimos just an art-movie perv?