JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Given the intimacy politics that drive the narrative of the film—two women vying for the affection and influence of a singular leader—one reading of this visual schema is obvious: in the world of The Favourite, people that are disconnected from one another can be controlled through voyeuristic activity. No one—not the scullery maid, or the leaders of an incipient parliament, or the queen herself—is exempt from being watched; strength is knowing what your opponents do in the shadows. This lesson comes into full view in a scene when Abigail, in the middle of her conversion from kitchen-hand to soubrette, watches from the darkness as Anne and Sarah enter the court’s grand library. From the shadows of the upper stacks, with a book in hand, Abigail witnesses Anne in erotic consort with Sarah for the first time. The realization of this same-sex attraction is, of course, pivotal for Abigail’s subsequent manipulation of Anne’s desires and her eventual move to replace Sarah as the younger, fresher lover of the queen.

Despite its unique presentation of a queer scopophilia, the film’s technical and narrative obsession with surveillance seems to reinforce an old line about politics in the modern world (even if Lanthimos’s version of that world—with its decadent wigs, pantomimic painted faces, and open sexual congress—seems distinctly anti-modern and unsubtle): real authority exists in knowing what your subjects want to do, and then to coercing them to do what you want. This coercion happens, among other ways, through the machinations of the bureaucratic state, by subtle architectural control over subjects’ bodies, by establishing media “gateways” that give and withhold information from those subjects, or by determining the rigid perimeters of normative sexuality. Extended to an entire nation, these forms of control establish what Michel Foucault called “power/knowledge,” a phenomenon affiliated with the age of Enlightenment, in which people are coordinated through assiduous information-gathering and documentation, instead of threats of overt violence or physical harm.[9] [open endnotes in new window] According to Foucault, this apparatus of control was predicated on the emergence of the bourgeoisie as the hegemonic class: “[a] people's court made it possible to break the monopoly on information” and distribute it broadly.[10] Presumably, Abigail understands this kind of power/knowledge when she pulls a book to learn about Anne’s court and its culture, or, when she attempts to set up elaborate triangles between people, positioning courtiers throughout the halls of the court and clearing space for her to access the queen’s affections. For, while the film takes place during the early days of the Enlightenment era, it is also a post-Baconian world, where intelligence-gathering and empirical knowledge started to impact statecraft. In her own right, Abigail seems to mimic the scrappy, self-motivated proto-bourgeois subject of the eighteenth-century novels that will come to characterize the age’s literature.

The library scene does not merely signify the emergence of power/knowledge in the eighteenth century or preempt Foucault’s infamous “eye of power,” the omniscience of the bourgeois intelligence apparatus.[11] Lanthimos also says something about voyeurism itself and the way that it encodes certain, forbidden registers of knowledge, either about oneself or the thing being viewed. Obviously, Abigail’s scopophilic voyeurism turns the traditional, heterosexual subject on its head.[12] The scene takes place between three women and, rather than register as an incident that occurs outside of the film’s narrative, involves a—perhaps the—major event of the story. (This intimate exchange contrasts with Abigail’s visual contempt for almost every male figure in the film). Less obvious, however, is the way that Abigail’s voyeurism distorts traditional forms of knowledge themselves. By having Abigail put down her book—an illicit form of information for a servant to have—only to replace it with an erotic gaze from the shadows, Lanthimos hints that political strategy and positioning is based less on gaining clandestine information about people than it is on establishing intimate physical or affective sensations between them.[13] Raw, corporeal desire cannot be disentangled from forbidden intelligence-gathering.

In other words, although The Favourite seems to visualize the modern dynamics of power—through its scheming, furtive protagonists and its voyeuristic cinematography—it also says something quite different and, perhaps, anti-modern about politics in the emerging Enlightenment (and in our own era, if we accept the film as an allegory for contemporary authoritarianism). Power, Lanthimos reveals, ultimately does not reside in one’s knowledge about others or its skillful deployment, nor is it exemplified by cunning figures like Abigail, who can at times evoke the early Enlightenment and its elevation of reason. Instead, it originates from embodied authority and derives from the capacity to submit others to your physical presence, even if that presence is, as in Colman’s depiction of Anne, wracked by illness and incapacitated by disability. Abigail seems to learn this lesson later when, in order to drum up sympathy from Anne, she intentionally injures herself with the volume plucked from the library. At this point, the printed book is neither an instrument for intellectual enrichment nor something that can be disregarded in favor of more direct, visual pleasure. Instead, it is a blunt-force object used to affect the body directly.

As tensions escalate between Sarah and Abigail, their confrontation becomes even more physical; what started with subtle maneuverings and verbal slights devolves into attempts at outright physical harm. Hoping to remove Sarah from the Queen’s retinue permanently, Abigail spikes the adviser’s tea with some toxic herbs, which causes Sarah to fall from her horse, who drags her in-harness. After recuperating in a brothel, Sarah returns to court with a thin lace scarf tied across her left eye, hiding an injury or, perhaps, a scar. Ever watchful and calculating, Sarah now has only half of her visual faculties to outsmart her rival; the adviser’s own “eye of power” has been covered by a delicate, even amatory, garment. Here, vision—and the internalization of knowledge through sight—is supplanted by a piece of clothing that suggests the idea of the body as an erotic surface. Although it appears absurd, like a swashbuckler’s undergarment, the makeshift eyepatch literalizes the substitution of influence acquired by sight/insight with influence gained through outward physical coercion.

Given the way that the film visualizes these two forms of politics—a politics based on conspiracies of knowledge acquired through vision, and a highly physicalized politics premised on scopophilic desire—we might reconsider the meaning of the fisheye lens, a device used in a prolific number of shots. The lens could mimic the all-seeing eye of the surveillance camera. When Lanthimos incorporates the viewpoint of a contemporary technology that implies omniscience, the overt artifice of early-eighteenth-century surfaces—the exaggerated face paint, the over-accumulated feasting tables—are cut with a kind of grotesque verite. But these shots can also exemplify something more primal: the point of view of a ravenous animal, the peripheral mastery of the swooping eagle, or the hungry wolf, ready to devour its prey.

The body of power

In fact, if there is a subtext to the film’s courtier drama, it is the assertion and domination of animal bodies, human and non-human alike, as a kind of politics. Lanthimos is no stranger to this thematic. Critical to the medical drama at the center of his previous film, the aptly titled The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), the animal (or animalistic) body is an even more overt symbol in The Lobster (2015). Here, in an almost literal representation of the Darwinian order, Lanthimos depicts a hotel where desperate, lovelorn individuals must pair up and copulate within a certain amount of time or they are turned into an animal and sent out to live in the woods. Acting as a broader investigation of the burdens of desire, The Lobster represents the idea of contemporary social devolution through its fixation on bodies under pressure, a focus that, as Angelos Koutsourakis explains, likely comes from Lanthimos’s background in performance art.[14] According to Koutsourakis, who focuses on the director’s second film Dogtooth (2009), Lanthimos’s work stands as a definitive example of Deleuze’s “cinema of the body,” where a film prioritizes performative activity over narrative or representational structures, allowing its characters to steadily disavow their distinctive, bourgeois identities.[15]

If she adds a historical dimension to Lanthimos’s cinematic fascination with human and non-human animals, Anne also exists as the most captivating character in The Favourite. Plagued by gout and later displaying signs of a stroke, her body is not vigorous or fertile. Indeed, it deteriorates from scene to scene. However, unlike the characters in The Lobster, who must reproduce under threat of transformation and social expulsion, or Dogtooth, where characters’ bodies are consistently de-individualized to signal their “dependence on broader social structures,” Anne is the head of an entire polis.[16] What her body lacks in actual vigor, it gains through the aura of monarchy and the way that the monarch compresses the natural and the civic worlds into one. As a classic example of the pre-modern sovereign, Anne represents simultaneously the “body politic” and the “body natural;” both Abigail and Sarah respond in this way to her, conflating their physical lust for the queen with their yearning for her authority.[17] However, in Ernst Kantorowicz’s original theory of the king’s two bodies, the physical form was transient, a mere vessel for the divine operations of the crown, where “[t]he migration of the ‘Soul’...from one incarnation to another…...conveys 'immortality' to the individual king as King.”[18] The Favourite seems to avoid bestowing Anne with any metaphysical claim to kingship. Instead, Lanthimos argues that Anne’s body—depicted throughout the film as both excessive and deteriorating—is the primary thing that gives her authority.

Indeed, Anne seems to be aware that she may be the final vessel for this version of monarchy and, hence, that her status as the head of state is hyper-material. In turn, her authority must be secured by bouts of action, performed despite her physical limitations. In one scene, for instance, Anne instructs Sarah to “go fast” down the hallways when she is wheelchair-bound. While this is a bit of good fun between two lovers, here, Anne also converts a loyal subject into a prosthetic extension of the self. In another scene, Anne harnesses herself up like a horse so that, in a simulation of equine virility, she can ride across the palace grounds. And, in one of the film’s most visceral moments, the queen gorges herself on cake, vomits into a pitcher, and gorges some more.

Exhibiting symptoms of gout (a condition affiliated with overly-rich cuisine and, hence, the diets of the nobility) and regularly commanding servants through big gestures and howls of pain, Anne seems to scramble the taxonomic-status of the human, or dominant animal, with the non-human animal. Indeed, this division was critical to the civic philosophy that emerged in her era, the turn of the eighteenth century. In his First Treatise on Government (1689), Locke argues that humans are a special category of animal: they may have “dominion over every living thing that moveth on the earth” but they have “no monarchical power over those of [their] own species.”[19] According to Heather Keenleyside, in Locke’s text, the human exists as the “creature who speaks and cannot be eaten,” beings that have the capability for representation—both political and linguistic—and are not driven merely by instinct or hierarchy.[20] But, as the film’s exemplar of ultimate monarchical authority, Anne scrambles Locke’s distinction: she asserts her dominion over others because she eats and, sometimes, cannot speak. Her occasional regressions into a fully “naturalized” being disorganizes Locke’s distinctions of sovereignty between humans and non-humans. Although many of these moments can read as deeply personal glimpses into the inner life of a deteriorating monarch (and monarchy), they also satirize the very basis for her reign, the Queen’s transcendence of the corporeal world and, by extension, humanity’s ascension beyond natural hierarchies.

A title and chapter page from John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. In blurring the boundaries between human and non-human within a story about internecine political struggle, The Favourite evokes Locke’s construction of an early liberalism—and reformed monarchism—established in part through a divine animal taxonomy.
Anne is the film’s case study in “reverse-anthropomorphism,” where non-human animal characteristics are attributed to humans. In smudged makeup, Anne is told that she resembles a badger; during an attack of gout, she howls in pain, splayed out on the floor; flecked with horsehair, even her most impressive royal garments resemble a spotted pelt

Instead of offering broad proclamations or delivering public speeches, the queen’s methods of governance suggest a social order that is pre-linguistic, one that has been built on sheer physical magnitude or animal power. While Colman conveys a politics of animalism through her performative gestures, she also wears highly symbolic clothing—such as her royal mantel, a garment flecked with tufts of horsehair—and is done up in makeup that, as Sarah points out early in the film, makes her look like a badger. Lanthimos includes a variety of actual non-human animals in his film, too. One parliamentary lord, compelled to curry favor with the crown in regular palace sessions, takes walks in the park with a dapper duck at his side, implying an equality between governance and trained fowl. Abigail and Sarah trade verbal barbs and engage in their war of position against one another while blasting captured grouse out of the sky like skeet. And the palace’s mid-afternoon entertainment involves members of government throwing ripe fruit at a portly, naked man who struts back and forth like a chicken. Hallmarks of Lanthimos’s surrealism, these moments establish a motif in which the film’s satire is rooted. Social arrangements that are meant to convey the emergence of a complex dance of civic interest are made into retrograde contests of dominance. The results are humans that are covered in mud, blood, and pulp.

A palace game involves hurling fruit at naked men. A pre-modern punishment for legal infractions, here the act doubles as a grotesque form of play.
Lanthimos personifies non-human animals as entities involved in competitions and strategic games, here with racing ducks. On the other hand, his film sometimes depicts humans as wholly visceral, or instinctual creatures.