Thoughts On: The Favourite - The Lanthimos Film?

02/01/2019

The Favourite - The Lanthimos Film?

Thoughts On: The Favourite (2018)

A fallen lady vies to become a court favourite.


Though far from a bad movie, The Favourite may be the first upset in what I'd consider a flawless record in Yorgos Lanthimos' filmography. The issues lies in the script and performances. In short, this is not a Lanthimos film - and though I know why this is the case now, I did not know as I watched. A Lanthimos film is not defined by a time or place. One could never call his films Greek or British, nor could they place them specifically in the history of film. Indeed, Lanthimos is said to have emerged from the Greek Weird Wave, but such declarations fall apart under very basic analysis (Lanthimos also decries his contextualisation within contemporary Greek filmmaking). In short, there are no real cultural markers dictating what a Lanthimos film is. His body of work is rather defined by the nature of its drama and certain world rules.

If one considers drama to be more than an abstract means of categorising film, more than a genre, they may come to see it to be the substance through which narrative operates and times finds momentum on film. Drama is that which truly works the machinery of the moving picture camera; drama is conflict, is action, is friction. Conceptualised as such, it appears obvious that there are certain dramatic approaches or certain dramatic forms that actors and/or writers use to bring about action and characters on screen. For instance, there are realistic forms of drama in which characters manifest as 'real' people. Other forms of drama lead to the creation of perfect characters and situations, all finely tuned for what a narrative requires. And yet other forms of drama are uncanny, are strange, are weird; characters and situations are awkward and unreal and do not seem to make sense. Lanthimos utilises this form of drama in all of his works, and I have come to categorise this and label it as tuphlodrama. Terminology, however, is not too important.

In each of Lanthimos' films, characters are given a certain naivety that is pre-loaded with malevolence. It is, however, unsatisfying to describe the family in Dogtooth or David in The Lobster as naive as though they act in ignorance, or operate from within a sphere of helplessness, there is a drive and a cunning within them; an ability to revolt, to conceptualise and pursue their own desires, curiosities and needs. This dichotomy between activity and passivity lies at the heart of their awkwardness and the uncanniness of the drama exuding from them. The eldest daughter in Dogtooth, for instance, wants to, in a sense, win all the games she plays. This competitiveness evolves into a yearning to escape when this development of individuality and self-consciousness comes into conflict with her situation: the fact that she is, in effect, a pet and an experiment of sorts for her possessive parents. It is the eldest daughter's ignorance to this fact that has her play the games she engages under perverse, amoral rules despite the fact that very human drives motivate her. We see this when she tries to gain a favour from her sister by licking her inner thigh. Absurd as this is, the eldest daughter always trades minor pleasures with her sister for favours. Unaware of sex and sexuality, she won a favour off an outsider by following a command to lick her between the legs. Ingeniously perverse this becomes when the eldest daughter realises the depths of this sexual trade. Although it is clear that she is not fully comfortable with the exchange of sexual favours with the fact that she licks her sister's inner-thigh when she likely previously licked elsewhere, the eldest comes to fully realise the dehumanisation this self-prostitution is when she is used as a sex object to placate her brother's desires under the command of her parents. It is this realisation that starts to see morality naturally emerge from what is human in the eldest daughter. And so though her road to an understanding the audience holds is rough, perverse and rather horrifying, it puts her in a place we are familiar with, but may now see with new eyes.

This is the genius in all of the films of Lanthimos; he sees certain rules conflict with characters reduced to very fundamental components as to find new paths towards the presentation and realisation of humanity. We find a great example in The Lobster. David is a very simple character; he does not want to be alone, he is short sighted and has a bad back. As uncanny as it may be for him to be defined, very directly, as such, this characterisation integrates into the rules of the world he finds himself in. This world requires everyone to be in a relationship and all who are not to be turned into an animal. The interrogative posed here pierces absurdity: put simply, what is a person if they are not in a relationship; are they any better than an animal? We may all sense the logic in this question - or at least the context in which it may be asked. We may also understand the reason why this question would see humanity simplified and boiled down to brutally direct units. Alas, whilst this could be explored in greater depth, what is of importance is the way in which Lanthimos uses the question that the rules of his world operate under to bring about highly human action in David. This is a character that, essentially, yearns so intensely to be human that profound love emerges out of necessity - the most basic of connections he can make with someone - and leads him to ask himself an impossible question: can the blind lead the blind? Can he be so naive, so faithful, so courageous, as to sacrifice his vision (literally and symbolically) for safety - for what may just be love? How human this quandary is. What is it to love, to be in a relationship? Would you--have you--blinded yourself for love? Why?

I could draw up many more examples of humanity emerging from the uncanny as Lanthimos' collected works burst at the seams with them. However, I have outlined just two examples to begin to explain the ways in which The Favourite is not truly a Lanthimos film. As implied, a Lanthimos film is defined by a specific, uncanny kind of drama and the humanity that this allows narrative to access and make palpable. The Favourite lacks not necessarily this, but this formula and effect's character, intensity and punch as it usually manifests in a Lanthimos film. In short, The Favourite's tuphlodrama fails to conjure a punch of profundity.

Missing from The Favourite is, first and foremost, a world of absurd rules. Missing from The Favourite, secondly, is a naivety and lack of awareness and ordinary cognitive functionality in characters. The former idea is markered by the fact that this is the most genre-defined film Lanthimos has made. Before The Favourite, The Lobster stuck out of Lanthimos' filmography as a sci-fi film of sorts. Alas, due to the tuphlodramatic propensities of sci-fi, The Lobster's narrative did not find itself at odds with its genreism. That is to say that sci-fi films often have a world defined by alien and strange rules. Highly common in the sci-fi film is a corrupt dictatorship or system of sorts - the likes of which is seen in Blade Runner, The Matrix, Ex Machina, Metropolis, District 9, WALL-E, A Clockwork Orange, V For Vendetta, The Hunger Games, Snowpiercer, Equilibrium, Dredd, Minority Report, Maze Runner, Brazil, ect. This system has the potential to create absurd situations; the inhumanity in young adults in A Clockwork Orange, the drudgery of workers in Metropolis, the sedentariness of passengers aboard the Axiom in WALL-E, the conformity of citizens in Equilibrium. Such outlines the potential in sci-fi for the uncanny and, maybe, tuphlodrama - this, we could argue, emerges from a pessimistic gaze into the future inherent to the creation of sci-fi. Alas, where sci-f and tuphlodrama are rather congruent, the period piece and tuphlodrama aren't necessarily so.

P.T Anderson recently used the the period piece for tuphlodramatic exploration in Phantom Thread, as did Park Chan-Wook with The Handmaiden. Fellini thrived in doing just this - Satyricon and Casanova are great examples of absurd period pieces. One could see Bergman to have done such, too, with masterworks in The Seventh Seal and Cries & Whispers. Such goes to show that uncanny drama and the period piece are sometimes functional together. Fellini is likely the filmmaker Lanthimos should have studied for The Favourite as it is his bombastic view of historical custom that comes to define the absurdity in the likes of Fellini Satyricon. All too common is it for the excesses of the rich to create melodramatic expressionism - we see this most famously in Citizen Kane's Charles and his Xanadu. Fellini takes this convention and runs with it in Satyricon. Lanthimos should have followed suit. Alas, the neuroses and excesses of the rich, powerful and royal are projections of near-inanity in The Favourite. The Favourite is to Dogtooth what Amadeus is to Fellini Satyricon. Both The Favourite and Amadeus deal with castes of absurdity and neurotic vanity, but Dogtooth and Satyricon use this corruption to define the way in which societies operate. This is all to say that the genreisms of The Favourite prevent and supplant tuphlodrama. We see this in the performances and general logic/tone of the narrative. The Favourite is very much so the comedic period piece that it is often categorised as; like a Monty Python film, comedy creates anachronism and therefore creates something estimating intellectual farcity and ironic, self-reflexive commentary. The result is morodrama - the kind of drama often seen in Coen bros movies or comedies by the Marx brothers. Funny enough The Favourite is not if it were to exist, tonally and structurally, alongside the likes of Duck Soup, Burn After Reading or The Life of Brian. Dramatically confused, The Favourite not only functions as half a comedy, but has performances that pursue a period piece of excess rather than a tuphlodramatic period piece. Our articulation is muddy, but the on-screen manifestations are clearly distinct. Compare, if you can, the lead performance of Amadeus and that of Fellini's Casanova. Compare also Rachel Weisz's performance in The Favourite and The Lobster.

The Lobster sees Weisz adopt an awkwardly abrasive intonation that remains consistent and is pertinent to all performances throughout the film; indeed, it seems to have been written for just this. Weisz flakes on this performance style in The Favourite like Elisabeth Olsen flakes a Russian accent in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Worse that this, however, the entire cast - Emma Stone in particular - do not seem to be acting as if they are in a Lanthimos film. True, the likes of Colin Farrell has said that Lanthimos does not specifically ask for the particular performances his actors always seem to provide. However, Stone's (and others') seeming ignorance to this approach to character is a key mechanism through which tuphlodrama is shaken and sometimes abandoned for morodrama--for comedy and a more basic conception of an off-beat period piece. I then believe Stone is the worst cast performer. Her performance is not bad, it is merely incongruous with the drama that Lanthimos works so well with. Stone's comedic sensibilities (put on display in so many of her movies) seem to formulate the basis for her approach in The Favourite. She does not descend into something darkly naive like Weisz and Farrell have done so brilliantly before, like Ariane Labed and Angeliki Papoulia can do so masterfully. There is a self-consciousness about Stone's absurd performance that emerges from its comedic foundations and is pertinent to the story (one may argue), but damaging to the world and tone. In short, it aids in the suppression of meaning that strikes out and grasps.

It would be hard not to come to the fact that Lanthimos and Filippou did not write the script for The Favourite at this point. All too obvious is it that this was written to be a racy, controversial period piece a little like the aforementioned Amadeus or The Piano or the more recent Far From The Madding Crowd. There are many markers of just this; many are linked to the discussed failure to manifest strong tuphlodrama. Alas, it is the unsubstantial thematic explorations of The Favourite that are an obvious product of a writer who has written something that has interested Lanthimos, but simply is not Filippou - is not as bitingly insightful as he, as capable of constructing allegory and articulating humanity past stuttering lips.

The Favourite explores power struggles, deception and jealousy. This is something as inherent to the royal period piece as corrupt systems are to the prospective sci-fi movie. Such puts the script on a back foot; whilst one cannot say they feel like they've seen a film like The Lobster, like Alps or Dogtooth, The Favourite feels like Barry Lyndon, Amadeus, Raise The Red Lanterns and more. This is simply because drama doesn't disguise or encompass the theme of jealousy. It is then all too obvious where characters will go in The Favourite. A great virtue of Alps, and indeed all of Lanthmos' films, is that characters struggle to know or decide what they want. There is a clarity about The Favourite that centralises the plot - the means through which a desire shall be pursued and achieved. Plot is key in the likes of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but all is stagnant and unmoving. This could not be more true than in Alps; no one has reason or logic, just a desire. Alps is such a pertinent film for comparison for it deals with surrogacy like The Favourite does. However, the alienation and meandering in Alps is replaced in The Favourite with cunning - and such sees plot become a distraction and lyrosophy asided. Such is a consequence of characters divorcing themselves from naivety and unknowing and leads to the construction of a story that is not only familiar, but rather mundane and far from striking. I will not delve into the details of the narrative for this film has only recently been released and wouldn't want to spoil things, but, put simply, The Favourite doesn't manage to say or project much about wanting to be wanted, to be used; it says something, some things, but nothing whole. I'd like to delve into this more in a separate post, but it is the lack of precision in The Favourite's commentary that left me--I cannot say disappointed--but certainly far less affected than anticipated.

Far more could be said about this film and its shortcomings, but, to conclude having said much about little already, I shall simply say that The Favourite does not feel like a Lanthimos film. The key markers of just this do not build into something cohesive and expressive. I certainly need to see this again, but I have not experienced a Lanthimos film like I have The Favourite - and that's not a positive comment.






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