The Sunday Intertitle: Intrigue

Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film THE FAVOURITE has intertitles! Or at any rate chapter titles. This poster gives you an idea of the adventurous use of type. They’re all lines of dialogue we haven’t yet heard, so it’s a rather literary use of foreknowledge. They say things like THIS MUD STINKS. Or ~

A bit like the book illustrations in BUSTER SCRUGGS, in fact. This could be on its way to being a new stylistic norm, the way starting a story near the end, at a crisis point, has become something of a cliché.

The film’s other stylistic ideas are adventurous too, though one can see where they come from. The candlelight and low angle tracking shots and slow dissolves are from Kubrick (as is one music cue, via BARRY LYNDON); the perriwigged foppery and arch sexual cruelty is pure DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT. The plot, as Fiona pointed out, owes plenty to ALL ABOUT EVE. The spirit of the Marquis De Sade is not far away either, though he’s locked in a closet so all he can do is shout suggestions through the keyhole.

Dave Ehrenstein, via Facebook, has already attested to a hearty dislike for the film, due to its encouraging the audience to feel superior to the characters. Which is a good reason, and if my feelings waver between cautious admiration and squeamishness it’s probably because I didn’t read the film’s signals quite that way. I had quite a lot of sympathy for Emma Stone’s character all the way through: she’s pushed into doing evil because, Sade-style, there are no rewards for being good. It’s possible we’re meant to regard her as having been a schemer from the start, but even then, she’s got good reason for wanting to attain power: her position without it is desperate.

Stone is good, and Rachel Weiss is really good, which hasn’t always been the case. Her attitude to the offscreen war — tax the farmers to starvation and fight until the soldiers are all dead — is as uncompromising as her abuse of Stone’s character. With similar results, nearly: if the underlings realise they’re in for it no matter what, rebellion becomes their logical recourse. So the art of governance is the science of knowing what you can get away with.

Nicholas Hoult, as the Whig leader opposed to the war, is deliberately written as vicious as everyone else, so that his apparent political compassion doesn’t make him a kindly bore: and so it can be read as him simply trying to preserve the status quo. He’s very good — he has something of Hugh Grant’s light comedy skills, Fiona suggested.

She also remarked that all these characters are after power as a means to happiness, but the character who has all the power, the Queen, is the most wretchedly unhappy of all. (If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.) Fiona did a bit of digging into Queen Anne and found a strange historical obsession with her gouty body, which this film connects to directly. It’s hagsploitation, of course. Olivia Colman is excellent in a very showy part requiring an abandonment of all vanity and an ability to reconcile, at least to her own satisfaction, the character’s innumerable contradictions: she’s alternately cunning, stupid, heartbroken, vicious, kindly, mad, confused… plus she keeps suffering destructive neurological events (too much cake is bad for you).

The script is by Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara, and it’s quite witty — often in a very basic way, surprising you with sudden brutality or swearing. But that can be witty. It can also get tiresome. Sympathy is the enemy of drama — but some tiny, homeopathic dose of it may be needed to keep the audience engaged. I had to work a little to find any sympathy, and in the end I found it in myself, by an effort of imagination, not so much in the film.

I’ve neglected Yorgos Lanthimos, along with the rest of modern cinema. The only thing of his I’d seen is this short, courtesy of a student, but I can feel a bit smug because the IMDb doesn’t even know this exists (it does, but it calls it a documentary) ~

12 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Intrigue”

  1. Of course Nicholas Hoult picked up things from Hugh Grant havig worked with him in “About a Boy”

    Your comparasion to “The Drauftman’s Contract” is right on the nose. I find few things creepier than grotesque people doing nasty things in “period” clothes and elaborate wigs. This sort of behavior is bad enough in Quentin Tarantino movies.

  2. Oh, it’s creepy alright. At least, unlike with Tarantino, I don’t get the impression we’re meant to find this behaviour charming.

  3. “grotesque people doing nasty things in “period” clothes and elaborate wigs.”
    Either a disillusioned summary of history or inspired by Robert Hamer: “I want to make films about people in dark rooms doing beastly things to each other.”

  4. revelator60 Says:

    Tiny correction–Hoult’s character Harley is a Tory, not a Whig. Weisz’s character Sarah is a fanatical Whig, which is what really alienated her from Queen Anne, who was a Tory centrist and tried balancing both parties during her reign, since she regarded extreme Tories as Jacobites and extreme Whigs as anti-monarchists.
    I enjoyed the film, but the complaint about its superiority toward the characters has some merit (Helen Edmundson’s excellent 2015 RSC play about Queen Anne is its tonal opposite). The historical Queen Anne was less a of a mess and more in charge than the film version. It’s also interesting that the film leaves out even a mention of her husband, the one person she seems to have had a entirely happy relationship with. Perhaps a love rectangle was considered too great a challenge?

  5. The film has at best a glancing relationship with history (but thanks for the correction). I liked all the mad non-period space dancing.

    It IS interesting to consider precisely *where* the film parts ways with fact, and it usually seems to be in order to paint everybody in a less flattering light…

  6. I’ve seen Lanthimos’ DOGTOOTH, which could easily be described as a “come dressed as the perverted cruel soul of Europe” party, to paraphrase Kael, although the concept is good and well-executed, and there’s at least one scene that has stuck with me (as well as a great closing shot). I’d be interested in your opinion of it.

    On the other hand, it kind of feels like Lanthimos does one thing very well (human cruelty), and that’s it. I haven’t seen anything else of his yet.

  7. yes very partial history. I really enjoyed the film .. it was just great to actually get a film with three main characters who were women. And trying to get POWER. I did go and read up on what actually happened and was astonished to read that a revisionist history of Queen Anne’s reign on happened late 20 th c after her character totally traduced by Sarah Churchill (who IRL appears to be astonishingly unlikeable) . I loved the costumes by Sandy Powell.

  8. Sandy P is doing what she does, but she does it extremely well and it’s completely in tune with the film. As David E says, the heightened opulence makes everything creepy.

    And I loved the wall-to-wall tapestries and paintings in the queen’s bedchamber, they give the effect of the scene having been photographed inside the decaying Portait of Dorian Gray.

  9. The Draughtsman’s Contract is one of my favourite films.

  10. Good! I’d like Peter Greenaway more if he’d been able to find new stylistic choices for each movie. His approach on that one seemed dead-on, but then he largely kept using it (though every time he made a departure, it was exciting).

  11. Well there are definite similarities between TDC and TCtTHWaHL. The Baby of Macon seemed to spell his doom. (I went to see it before it was banned in the UK for the extended rape scene.) I was told recently NEVER to view his film about Rembrandt.

  12. TBoM at least was about something, at least in Greenaway’s view. But when films are about something, the storyteller’s approach, which Greenaway intends to avoid, is often useful.

    Standing in a multiplex where The Tulse Luper Suitcases was to be screened as part of Edinburgh FilmFestival, he said to a late friend of mine, “Of course in ten years time, all this will be gone.” More than ten years later, my friend is gone but the cinemas remain.

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