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25 March 2020
2018 | The Favourite | Yorgos Lanthimos – Analysis
2018 | The Favourite | Yorgos Lanthimos – Analysis

“The Favourite” is a 2018 film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Our analysis deals with the key question of this film: who’s the favourite? The answer is not that obvious.

Brief Introduction

This is an analysis of shapes and structures of the way the storytelling works in a film. As this is based on a series of interpretative hypothesis and the use of some sort of evidences to sustain them, we will be referencing scenes and parts of the film and therefore there’ll be spoilers.

If you still haven’t watched this film, before you do read this article, please watch it. Where can you watch it? Try Amazon.

Film Info

The Favourite is a 2018 film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos – who also directed films such as Dogtooth (2009), The Lobster (2015) e The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). The film has reached a great critical success[1] and it’s been nominated for 10 Academy Awards – amongst the others best film, original screenplay, directing, editing and cinematography – and it won Olivia Colman the Oscar as Best Actress in a Leading Role. Alongside Olivia Colman, the film sees also the acting of Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone.

The plot reads like this [2]: Early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper.
When a new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots.
As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfil her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way. But who’s the queen’s favourite?

The visual style and the camera.

In a language just like the films’, it’s often very useful to investigate the position of the camera and the way the shots are later linked by the editing. This not only allows us to find hints to explain chains of events that have an ambiguous and sometime “obscure” sense, but it also helps defining the type of language and communication set by the expressive source.

In the case of The Favourite one thing that jumps to the eye is the position of the camera in relation to the eyes of the characters. Although the film starts by keeping an even position with Abigail when she’s in the carriage, the situation changes as soon as she enters the Palace.
From now on, most of the tighter frames are composed as low angles, well under the line of the eyes and denote the position of the spectator in relation to what happens in the palace.
If this, on the surface, could seem like a gaze that establish a subordination of the spectator to the “high” dynamics that happens in the palace – by framing the people of the court almost in an heroic fashion – we think that, actually, the camera signals a political position that communicate a stance towards History: more than the fascination towards the characters it indicates the position to which common people are usually relegated from this power dynamics.

This quite general practice of the low camera could result in a repetitive and dull filmmaking style. Lanthimos, then, alternates such shots, with others that seem more balanced – in most cases they’re just wider and kept relatively low (what changes is the angle moreover than the height of the camera). But not only this, the film, in fact, is also full of extreme wide-angles shots which underline the distortions and the resulting perception from an inside-the-palace perspective, shielded by the real life (farmers) and the war which seem exclusively a politics matter, more than an actual event that takes people lives away.

The few moments in which the camera seems to be even with the characters can be counted on your hand: amongst the others, curiously and symbolically, camera is on the same level of ducks during the race and, more important from a characters narrative point of view, towards the ending when Abigails is kneeling, rubbing the Queen’s legs, while the latter keeps her down with her hand.

Editing

A brief mention about the editing moves our argument a bit further down the line: the shots are edited together following a rhythm nor fast neither classic (normal), leaving enough time to the spectator to look around in the frame and fixate his gaze on other scenic elements.

A number of theories help us understand how the movement of the eyes in a frame and a certain grade of reflexivity come into play when the shots are kept for longer than usual.

The experience of watching a film sometimes could seem a passive activity.
Actually, the spectator is really active: he’s got to process quick successions of audiovisual information, perceive what is represented on the screen, comprehend the characters, the space and the action shown and contribute to the creation of a narrative form during the course of the film that makes him understand the story [most of these processes are obviously subterranean, but they still exist]. A similar grade of attention in a group of people is present in every spectator and can be found within the first 300/400 ms after a cut, after which any individual spectator starts acting on his own increasing the differences to others. The longer the distance between a cut and the following one, the more the brain is invited to interfere with the direct perception and to raise the reflection and understanding grade on a cognitive level, more than the pre-cognitive one.

For an example, look at the following clip: the first cut happens after 18 seconds (the average is usually between 4/5 seconds). In addition, as you can see, there some lines not covered by frames but instead left to the off-screen. The tail of the scene is organised on a wide-angle frame kept well beyond the “classic” narrative necessity and that, as we were saying before, interrupts the flow of the low-angle shots, activating a point of view from a top angle (almost a CCTV eye) which shows what we meant by the distortion grade that the author wants to make clear for the spectator’s eye.

As a conclusion to these notes about the staging of the film, it seems now clear to us that the direction doesn’t mean to be “invisible” at all, but points strongly towards the spectator through the communication on a cognitive and reflective level, inviting him to be present, to take a stance and reason about what he’s watching.

A characters film.

This is a film that teases the thought and the reflection of the spectator aiming at a less mimetic output than a many films around [and obviously, not the most extreme in terms of language to do so].

From this point of view, we are in a characters film, more than just a chain-of-events-plot film. An example? Watch this clip:

Once again: the low angle shots, the editing rhythm and the wide-angles are easily spotted. What make this scene meaningful to this analysis are a couple of factors:

  • The scene – and the staging – are there to show the queen’s reaction and give an account of the character, more than just advancing a chain of events. Actually, the concatenation of the plot points, in this film, is exactly and exclusively organised to show the way the characters change and not, vice versa, the way the events make them change [the dynamics usually found in most films]
  • This scene happens when the film is already towards the middle part: very often, in the normal way this is done, these characterisations take place in the first part of the film, before the primary narrative event [the inciting incident] happens and overwhelms the characters just drawn [for an analysis of an inciting incident, once more treated in an original way in a film, please have a look at our Mulholland Drive analysis].

We should say that most films, especially in the European tradition of the ‘900 art-house films, prefer the characters over the plot, whereas, in the american cinema, the events are often prioritised over the characters. We are obviously talking about general tendencies and in both cases there’s many exceptions that could be named.
Anyway, a balance between these two dynamics is very often necessary to reach a satisfying degree of depth in a film.

So, even on the characters side, this film invites the spectator to take part in the thought process. But how does this work?

Empathy and the mechanisms behind it.

To understand the various mechanisms behind the process that sutures a spectator to a screen, a good practice is to investigate the empathetic mechanisms [character-spectator] that a film tries to deploy.

What is the empathy? As affirmed by Theodor Lipps [4]: “It’s not about trying to feel something inside our own body, but to perceive our own self in the aesthetic object. In this process of fusion, the opposition between the subject and the object vanish, or better, doesn’t exit.”

Generally [and quite recently] we can find two different theoretical approaches in regards to the film empathy: they go by the names of Embodied Simulation [ES] and Theory of Mind [ToM] and they are driven by two different neurophysiological systems that reside in our body.

ES is based on the discovery of the mirror neuron system and it’s applied to the cinema by the works of Vittorio Gallese and his colleagues. The substantial overlap between the activity of the observer and the observed is not found in the entire brain, but it’s limited to a specific set of regions of it. This mechanism is the one behind a more direct bond to the screen and facilitate our reading of the emotions staged by the human body – we are leaving some other arguments out of the equation as they would make this analysis too long and too unbalanced on neurological elements more over than the film itself.

Instead, the ToM approach defines the process in which we ascribe beliefs, thoughts, motivations and intentions to Other(s).
ToM is usually outlined as a top-down process that relies on high-level cognitive representations of others’ mental states. Nonetheless, while ES is supported by an “emotion contagion” relatively automatic, ToM is a cognitive process of perspective adoption.

People are aware that others have not only physical characteristics but also internal mental states definable as emotions, desires, beliefs, thoughts and intentions. These mental states are thought to be able to guide the actions of the human beings.

ToM is the process that accounts for the intuition of these others’ mental states [5] and this process happens even majorly in relation to characters – in the specific case of films – who “hide” something that makes them go beyond the simple adhesion to an emotion. For instance, when Abigail throws Sarah’s mail in the fireplace and cries, we obviously recognize the crying as an emotion, but in this case, it’s the recognition itself of that emotion that gives us the input to investigate it further because it’s a mental state that we feel it’s going in the opposite direction to our expectations and what we think we knew about the character.

Again, an invitation to reflect.

Who’s The Favourite?

Why does this film organise such machinations to almost force us to think? Why does this all revolve around the central question of who’s the Queen’s favourite? Isn’t this clear, given that the film ends on the choice of the Queen on Abigail instead of Sarah – as the monarch defines the latter as a “thief” and banishes her from the reign?

Although this choice seems clear on the surface, it’s what Sarah and Abigail represent that puts us in alarm and makes us think there’s more to this.

What do the characters represent?

Lady Sarah: Oh, you really think you’ve won?
Abigail: Haven’t I?
Lady Sarah: We’ve been playing very different games.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in “The Favourite”

At this point, I believe it’s necessary to write a brief note about the quality of the acting of the protagonists: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are absolutely incredible. Their acting is sublime and it’s not a case that Olivia Colman won the Oscar and both Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz – in competition even outside the filmic walls – were nominated for the award as best actress in a supporting role.

A mechanism that concerns the character, and seem to us worth mentioning, is in the reversal of the reaction to them that happens in the flow of receiving the film: at the beginning, for the way Abigail and Sarah are presented, the film in a subtle way makes us “root” for Abigail (for instance, with the close-up of Abigail when she’s about to rest with the other servants) due also to her popular characterization and the jokes she’s the object of – while depicting the controversial side of Sarah who manipulates the queen and command in her place.
Let’s reference this scene, that we will find a bit later, too.

As the corruption of the ambition grows in Abigail and the battle between the two finally begins, we then stand in a balanced position about the two – while still questioning Abigail’s real motivations. In the third part of the film, the position are inverted and we seem to prefer Sarah, just like the story apparently takes the opposite direction. Sarah, in fact, seems to be characterized by the truth of love towards the queen, more than just the will to power and personal ambitions.

Her reproaches and some moments in which she seems to be overtly manipulative gets a recapitalisation in the third part of the film and they fall under the expression of a love, although ambiguous and “violent”, which remain a result of a relatively “pure” and true sentiment.

So on one end the ambition, on the other love? In the film these two sides are often ambiguously mixed to be then untied towards the ending [a veil of ambiguity is left on them even then, making this film alive]. Where Sarah, at the beginning, is characterised as powerful and ambitious and as someone who uses the love of the queen as a controlling method, the film subverts this starting point. Let’s think about another character for all intents and purposes: sexuality.

An example of the way this subversion happens is for instance in the scene that finds Abigail naked on the queen’s bed. This scene follows another one that shows Abigail seeing a sexual intercourse between the queen and Sarah. Abigail understands a secret side of the queen and exploits it. She – although naked – dresses up as eros and tries to reach her objective by seducing the queen. The lie at the core of the ambition vs the truth of love.

A dialogue between Sarah and Queen Anne makes this argument quite explicit:

Lady Sarah: Abigail has done this. She does not love you.
Queen Anne: Because how could anyone? She wants nothing from me. Unlike you.
Lady Sarah: She wants nothing from you. And yet somehow she is a lady. […]
Queen Anne: I wish you could love me as she does!
Lady Sarah: You wish me to lie to you? “Oh you look like an angel fallen from heaven, your majesty.” No. Sometimes, you look like a badger. And you can rely on me to tell you.
Queen Anne: Why?
Lady Sarah: Because I will not lie! That is love!

Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in “The Favourite”

Once more we have a return of the “badger”, in a recall to the clip we shared a bit earlier. This time though, Sarah seems sincere towards the queen, and not manipulative as she looked like in the clip – and the way the film wanted to show her at the beginning.

Love against ambitions and lies, or better, against death.
Symbolically, the more Queen Anne mistreats Sarah, the more her health worsens. We are in a triangle that sees the queen in the centre and on one hand the ambition and the death (Abigail) and on the other love (Sarah).

Thanatos and Eros.

Yorgos Lanthimos is a greek director, very attentive to the culture that came out of his own country – for instance, his The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) is based on the greek tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripidis[6].
It seems to us quite easy to presume that he’s fully aware of the dialectics between Thanatos and Eros and the ways these two “drives” – mythologically the former is known as the God of Death, while the latter as the God of Love – compenetrate each other and often “dress up” like the counterpart [just like we saw earlier with Abigail seducing the queen].

Usually, in the analysis of a film, every small element or detail that slightly goes off the norm hides an interpretative key. An important part of the films, often undervalued, is the title design. Let’s have a look at the title of this film who shows a very peculiar composition:

The Favourite - Title - Thanatos and Eros.

Now, if the word Favourite seems traditional in the lay down, what seems innatural is the way the word The is composed. The distance between the letters seem to indicate three different elements, unified by the sense of the word that we then associate to the three of them together. We can associate the word H to Her Majesty The Queen and T to Thanatos and E to Eros.

Abigail is preferred by the Queen and with her is the death drive. This characteristic of Abigail is perfectly drawn in the end scene when she, taking advantage of the queen sleeping, tries to crush a rabbit under her own shoe and only the awakening of the queen stops her from doing so.

Rabbits and the ending: is Abigail the favourite?

We have left aside an important symbol so far: the rabbit. In some parts of the film this symbol seems to offer a shelter from the film’s tone: we can even see an echo of Alice in Wonderland‘s Queen of Hearts in Queen Anne, especially in the way some films have depictedthe former.

However, beyond this quick run off-topic [another quote could be found in the use of candles in similar fashion to Kubrick’s] is clear that the rabbits are a vector of multiple meanings: they could represent the strangeness and extravagance of the court; the infertility of power – queen has so many rabbits as many dead children; and also as a symbol of power as bearer of death.

But just like we said at the beginning, the end scene has a specific symbolic apparatus. It starts with Abigail crushing the rabbit and it ends with her massaging the queen’s legs with a similitude that associates the queen’s hand on Abigail’s head, as to keep her still in doing what she’s doing, to the shoes of Abigail as she’s trying to crush the poor rabbit. Even the camera is on Abigail’s face – and we’ve discussed about this happening very rarely in the film – almost signalling our prostrate position, exactly like Abigail’s, before it transitions to an extremely symbolical editing.

The trio staging/plot/expression – just like the one Abigail/Queen/Sarah – is now easier to untangle: the power (the Queen) has chosen to maintain the death drive by choosing Abigail – the more manipulable of the two as she does what she’s ordered to – instead of Sarah – not so manipulable because subject to the laws of love and not power’s.
Abigail is subject and comply with the orders because beyond the ambition and the regaining/retaining of her social status, there’s nothing, there’s emptiness.

The power chooses the manipulable and the sterility to preserve itself, while we, as spectators and common people, through the point of view chosen for the camera, are in the same position of Abigail [and the rabbits-and the ducks?]: manipulable and subject to the power, without a reaction [if not the one of complaining and crying about] because we’re afraid to lose what we have [what do we have?] instead of what we are.

And maybe, thinking, we could even believe that the favourite by the Queen is not Abigail, even though she’s the one chosen to live next to her, but Lady Sarah, to whom the queens probably tries to save the life by banishing from the corruption and the death at the palace so typical of the power.

And you? What do you think? Who’s The Favourite?


P.s.: this is an analysis that tries to use objective elements in order to sustain the hypothesis. Any contrary argument is well accepted and could only make our take on this deeper and more interesting. What we believe, at the end of the day, is that a film is in definitive an aesthetic object and the nature of reaction to it stays profoundly subjective.

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NOTE:
[1]: At the time of this article the score is 90/100 on metacritic.com
[2]: Written by Fox Searchlight Pictures on imdb.com
[3]: taken from Marco Venditti, Il movimento del cinema.
[4]: Theodor Lipps, Einfühlung, Innere Nachahmung, und Organempfindungen, Archiv fur Psychologie, 1903
[5]: Gal Raz, Talma Hendler, ‘Forking Cinematic Paths to the Self: Neurocinematically Informed Model of Empathy in Motion Pictures’, in «Projections», n° 8, issue 2, Winter 2014 ,p.93
[6] Lincoln, Kevin (October 27, 2017). “The Ancient Greek Plays That Explain How The Killing of a Sacred Deer Got Its Title“. Vulture.

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