Favourite, The: Yorgos Lanthimos Most Commercial, Most Entertaining, Oscar Caliber Film

A visionary director, who puts his stamp on each film, Yorgos Lanthimos is also the kind of auteur who does not repeat himself.  The Favourite, which premiered to great acclaim in the 2018 Venice Film Fest (in competition), is Lanthimos’ most accessible and mot commercial picture to date, and the one that should garner him his first Best Director Oscar nomination.

As such, it should bring new fans to his fold, after making two English-speaking art films par excellence: The Lobster, the still-underestimated movie, which starred Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, and the subtle if subdued family drama, The Killing of Sacred Deer, starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. (To be fair, The Lobster did earn a screenplay Oscar nomination).

No wonder the brilliant distributor Fox Searchlight is labeled “Hollywood Oscar Machine,” having won Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave and The Shape of Water, not to mention many acting awards, most recently for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. And now the prestigious indie company has another Oscar contender with The Favourite, a juicy yet compelling, darkly humorous yet poignant, story about what goes on in front and behind closed doors of royalty.

The film is dominated by three strong female characters, Queen Anne, splendidly performed by Olivia Colman, and two superb actresses who have already won Oscars.  Rachel Weiss (The Constant Gardener)  plays the Queen’s best friend and confidante, Lady Sarah, and Emma Stone (La La Land), is Sarah’s cousin Abigail, a former aristocrat whose father lost their estate in gambling and now seeks employment, even as a maid– but not for too long.

Though set in the distant past, The Favourite is timely in its gender statements about an era in which women possessed real power and made crucial decisions regarding politics—both external (declaration of wars) and internal (raising land taxes).

It’s a testament to Lanthimous’ bold audacity that his richly dense film walks a fine line between a campy melodrama (witty lines, foul language), royal intrigue tale about power struggles, and also sort of biopic, as some of the events actually took place. Australian playwright and screenwriter Tony McNamara collaborated with Lanthimos to adapt Deborah Davis’ original script, resulting in a film that is smart, playful and satisfying on many levels.

The narrative structure is that of a novel, divided into eight chapters, which are asymmetrical in length and different in tone.  The episodes’ titles are often droll, such as “What an Outfit,” or “What If I Fall Asleep and Slip Under,” or “I Dreamed I Stabbed You in the Eye.”

Queen Anne, a frail, gout-stricken, unattractive woman, is often in bed, either in intolerable pain or in state of joy, making out with her female friends, confidantes, and proteges. (There are intimations of lesbianism and nudity scenes).

All three women are tough (even the Queen when she needs to be), to say the least.  And among many striking attributes, they are verbally, mentally and physically cruel to each other.  There’s a lot of slapping, whipping, and other punishments, not to mention shooting contests between Sarah and Abigail, filmed in magnificent exteriors.

In its structure, striking visuals (including some candle-lit sequences), and mischievous tone, The Favourite recalls Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 Oscar-winning masterpiece Barry Lyndon.

At the same time, in theme, characters, and subtext, it could be seen as a reworking of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ 1950 Best Picture Oscar winner, All About Eve, with Sarah as Margo Channing (the tole that the incomparable Bette Davis played  and Abigail as Eve (Anne Baxter), since what propels the melodrama is the arrival of the needy and insecure Abigail in the first scene, and then a chronicle of how gradually she plays favorites and assume power to the point of (almost) kicking out Sarah out of the game.

As of Day 4, The Favourite may not be the best film (many promising titles are yet to screen in what is the best Venice Festival I have ever attended!).  But it certainly is the movie that offered me the most joyous and pleasurable viewing experience.

After playing at Venice, Telluride and Toronto, The Favourite will be released by Hollywood’s best distributor at the moment, Fox Searchlight, in time for the awards season.  And I predict Oscar nominations across the board: Picture, Director, Screenplay, all acting, and technical categories.

Big Question: Is Olivia Colman lead (Best Actress) and Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz secondary (Best Supporting Actress)? Or are all three women playing lead roles and thus should be placed in the Best Actress category?  Or are Colman and Stone Best Actress nominees and Weisz Supporting Actress?

Let the eternal (and political) lead/supporting Oscar roles debate begin!!!

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