Rarely do period pieces feel as of their period (not that we can truly know this, for obvious mortal reasons). Whilst most are plagued by some vaguely anachronistic aesthetic (the feel of the 2010s doing the 1700s), like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite (2018) feels the part, achieved in its lighting, the tonal quality of its images, its dialogue, its attention to detail, etc. In its depictions of the monarchical and the patriarchal its acuity is as keen as it is in its production, perhaps even despite itself.
If the majority of feminism-touting reviews of the film refer to the “edginess” of its female characters, for example (and the obvious strength of these women, and the women who play them), perhaps the true locus of the film’s startling feminist perspective may rather be found in analysing not just the male characters, but the structures that circumscribe them: in particular, the dual structure of masculinity and patriarchy, which we will look into momentarily.
To first delve into the monarchical representation in the film, and why this – necessitously – takes from the powerof the role of the (supposed strong) Woman (countenancing the historical, and as-yet time-honoured, accuracy of the costume drama). As Slavoj Žižek has so pertinaciously perceived in his interactions with Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010), what King George VI (née ‘Bertie’, played by Colin Firth) feels – until he is “cured” by speech coach Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) – is the hysterical uncertainty that his monarchical position confers. Indeed, to embody this power is precisely to be ‘castrated’ by it, to become unable to wield it in accord solely with personal will or desire, as it is merely a – albeit the supreme – symbolic institutional figurehead position. Olivia Colman’s stunning portrait of Queen Anne demonstrates this paradox perfectly; impotent of any real power, her frustrated lack comes out in bursts of fury directed against lackeys, for looking at her, or against court musicians performing on the lawns, for breaking her reverie.
The men in The Favourite are patently absurd, and are poked fun at for being so (deservedly); but it is a mistake to see this as its radical feminist dimension. The mockery washes off, but the power remains in male hands. What the film so tenaciously does is highlight the diachronic dimension of masculinity and the synchronic dimension of patriarchy. Used primarily in linguistics, the terms derive from Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, and respectively broadly refer to something that changes over time and something that is more stable in (a particular) time. If we array masculinity and patriarchy against this schema, what becomes apparent is the insidiousness of the patriarchal structure that remains, despite the instability of the manifestations of masculinity that it is cloaked in.
Whilst the powdered wigs and painted faces of The Favourite’s circle of influential men jars with later manifestations of masculinity – predicated on machismo, for example, or other equally ostentatious, if only more familiar, forms – and are roundly shown up as preposterous in their pomposity in this movie, it is its strength to show, and show up the fact, that the power is still properly concentrated in the hands of men. Despite Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) having the ear of the queen and enjoying substantial privilege (which they feverishly try to thwart for each other), the government is still made up entirely of men, and who is in effect the leader of the opposition, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), is able to engineer proceedings through blackmailing Hill. It is what Harley in the film gets away with with impunity that goes to reinforce the force of the patriarchal structure: pushing Hill into a ditch, for example; and this is strikingly portrayed on the side of the woman in Hill’s eye-rolling, sighing resignation to the possibility of her rape: a sardonic exaggeration that shows up the very everydayness of what is allowed to men, over women.
Theodor Adorno claimed that ‘in psycho-analysis nothing is true except the exaggerations’; whilst masculinity in The Favourite may be seen as being exaggerated, its diachronic extravagance is in fact being shown to be underwritten by the synchronic continuity of patriarchy, a societal structure exaggerating and confirming itself as truth still today. It is the film’s merit to magnify this to the extent that its audience might yet analyse and begin to deconstruct this synchronic structure hidden deep within the grotesqueries of the diachronic.
Daniel Bristow is co-editor of Everyday Analysis