I have to confess, I think this marks the first time I’ve ever laughed out loud at a mock execution. There’s no doubt that Yorgos Lanthimos is a singular director with a decidedly atypical vision, but nothing in his prior work could have adequately prepared me for The Favourite, a film that combines the sly satiric sensibilities of The Lobster and the surrealist psychological depth of The Killing of a Sacred Deer in a neatly gift-wrapped package that should prove palatable to the moviegoing masses in ways that his previous films could not. It’s every bit as outlandish as one would expect from Lanthimos, but its comedy is more overt and its premise less impenetrable than the director’s earlier films. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Which is not to say that The Favourite is Lanthimos-lite by any stretch of the imagination; his edge is still razor sharp, and if anything, he leans harder into the farcical aspects of his story than he has in past films. And yet, The Favourite has a crowd-pleasing capacity that defies both logic and explanation — but there’s a method to Lanthimos’ madness. There’s no reason that an 18th-century costume dramedy this aggressively stylized should play to matinee audiences made up of the very sort of bourgeoisie the film itself mocks, but it does. Because Lanthimos’ execution is so irresistibly entertaining, he’s able to surreptitiously insert a subversive message that sneaks under the radar — his audience may not realize it, but they’re laughing at themselves.
A great deal of the credit for the effectiveness of The Favourite must go to its absurdly talented core ensemble, with Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Colman delivering three of the year’s strongest performances. Stone and Weisz — respectively playing a lady fallen from her station when her father literally gambled her away and her powerful cousin who conspicuously wields the true power behind Queen Anne’s throne — boast a scintillating chemistry as they vie for position in the royal court. But it’s Colman’s scenery-chewing performance as the volatile queen, equal parts unhinged monster and pitiable victim, that really steals the show. It’s hard to imagine a cast that could be better at making the ugliest behavior look so good.
As laudable as the performances are, they wouldn’t amount to as much were Lanthimos not in top form. As director/cinematographer/co-writer, he’s drawing heavily from the Kubrick playbook, employing stylistic cues that play like Barry Lyndon meets A Clockwork Orange with a Strangelove-ian script. But while Kubrick used his whip-pans and fisheye shots with a straight face, here Lanthimos is capitalizing on his baroque aesthetic to make a parodic point about the excesses of not only his characters and their world but the cinematic medium itself.
That said, a deeply satirical black comedy about two women destroying each other in increasingly petty ways may not be for everybody. Its style could prove too obtrusive for some, its expletive-laden dialogue too anachronous, and the depravity of its plot too egregious to be fully embraced. But for those willing to get on board with Lanthimos’ peculiar brand of absurdism, The Favourite is certain to win your favor. Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language.
Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark, Fine Arts Theatre.