JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2021, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 60, spring 2021

Animal kingdom: the body politics of The Favourite

by Jamison Kantor

About a month before winning an Academy Award for her astonishing portrayal of Queen Anne (1665-1714), Olivia Colman made it clear that her role in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (2018) was not just an unconventional depiction of an eighteenth-century English leader, but also a biting piece of contemporary political commentary. Addressing a crowd at the Palm Springs Festival, Colman described the queen as “someone in whom resides all the madness, frustration…and instability of a powerful person unfit for the job.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] Colman, who was speaking to a largely American audience that had themselves been living under a reckless president for almost two years, then quipped, “I don’t know if you know anyone like that.”[2]

Despite the droll quality of her remark, this essay takes seriously Colman’s understanding of The Favourite as a reflection on current reactionary political movements across the globe, especially the leaders of those movements. For, while they are “unfit for the job” of managing the liberal institutions on which their countries’ political systems are built, these outlandish, sometimes ludicrous figures are playing a different game, one in which individual expressions of domination license the restoration of a strict social hierarchy. Among its many characteristics, this global reemergence of authoritarianism has accentuated a tenet of conservative ideology that was crucial to its perpetuation from the eighteenth century through today: the ranking of and discrimination between persons at the visceral level of the body. As reactionaries respond to what they see as modest gains in social equality, they seem to abandon the “modern” administrative tactics of persuasion or rationality—even of the most coercive variety—and instead embrace a politics based on a strict taxonomy of physical worthiness and vitality. But the corporeal power of the conservative figurehead is not literal; it does not mean that the leader has the most formidable body, through which they command the respect of the masses. (In fact, many of these leaders seem to be physically unimpressive.) Instead, the strength of the leader manifests itself through the mythos of their command over the natural world and, by extension, their sovereignty over a host of natural beings that exist to serve them. Indeed, if “nature” has long been a keyword for the conservative desire to constrain social change at any cost, then the conservative figurehead is also the ruler of nature itself, its guiding force, as well as the vessel through which it flows.[3]

In this essay, I contend that Lanthimos’s satiric film dramatizes this political dynamic in two different ways. First, The Favourite seems to caricature the ideology of conservative restoration by focusing on a figurehead of the original English Restoration, Queen Anne. One of the period’s later monarchs—and a paragon of its literature and culture—Anne represents in Lanthimos’s portrayal a grotesque version of “natural sovereignty,” with a body that is deteriorating (but also desired by her closest advisers), and a domain that extends over a broad range of human and non-human animals (and, oftentimes, creatures whose existence spans both categories). For Lanthimos, Anne also seems to represent—and to legitimate historically—one of the director’s primary cinematic concerns: the animal as a metaphor for kinship and social affiliation, even of the most perverse varieties. However, while The Favourite sensationalizes England’s original monarchial restoration and the premises of a broader conservative ideology—the rejection of “rational” persuasion in favor of sheer affect and desire; the mythologizing of the sovereign through her supremacy in all realms of life—then the film also comments on our twenty-first-century revival of authoritarian nationalism, many varieties of which have a pseudo-monarchist character. In its second horizon of meaning, then, the film addresses the current political moment through its historical depiction of restoration, attributing to both present and past versions of tyranny a kind of gross, physicalized absurdity.

Popular critics have been split on whether to call the film an accurate period piece or an eccentric, hyper-stylized vision of aristocratic excess, something along the lines of Sophia Coppola’s MTV-inspired Marie Antoinette (2006) or Baz Luhrmann’s quick-cutting, SoCal Romeo + Juliet (1996).[4] My reading, however, addresses both interpretations, crediting Lanthimos with an authentic portrayal of eighteenth-century royalist intemperance, as well as modern despotism. Indeed, the genre of the film is similarly debatable: The Favourite appears to be at once a picaresque novel adaptation, absurd satire, and melodramatic LGBTQ+ three-hander. In it, a seemingly uncultured (and, in her opening scene, literally muck-covered) ingenue named Abigail Hill (played by Emma Stone), enters Anne’s court as a lowly kitchen hand and works her way into the center of the queen’s inner circle, relying on a combination of social perception and sexual manipulation to become the handmaiden—and, eventually, lover—of the queen. Standing in Abigail’s way is her own cousin, Anne’s long-time adviser and paramour Sarah Churchill (played with Machiavellian relish by Rachel Weisz). Originally the focus of Anne’s affections, Sarah wages a proxy battle against Abigail to maintain her place in the court’s innermost sanctum, a spatial metaphor for the queen’s trust. And yet, as Abigail slowly wins over Anne, she moves closer to the heart of that court, the royal bedroom, while Sarah is pushed further out, eventually ending up in a dank country brothel, a fitting inversion of the sexual power play she has made on the queen. This queer love triangle between Anne, Sarah, and Abigail permits Lanthimos to center the queen’s body as the contested territory for political aspiration. While this plot can feel surprisingly modern, as it equates gay eroticism with social-climbing and courtly influence, it also literalizes an older, recurrent dynamic of conservative revival, in which the sentiments, passions, and appetites overtake reason and cerebral cunning.

In other words, by representing both historical and contemporary versions of conservative restoration, The Favourite visualizes the clash of two different forms of political power. It reveals a familiar, “modern” form of power based on knowledge, strategy, and the canny manipulation of the interests and needs of others. But, ultimately, the film revels in a revanchist form of power based on the rejection of reason, overt expressions of physical dominance, and an assiduous sorting of bodies, a ranking system that sometimes mimics—but also scrambles—the classic taxonomy between human and non-human animals.[5]

Lanthimos generates this ideological conflict in three ways, which I will address sequentially in this essay. First, through innovative camerawork and production choices, Lanthimos depicts the state as constructed through illicitly-acquired knowledge about subjects and rivals; the director equates authority with voyeurism and clandestine sight.[6] But other shots—which display all sorts of visceral activity and physical urges—reveal sovereignty as the ability to fulfill (and neglect) carnal instincts and desires, a power that ultimately trumps any information about people or the way they can be manipulated. Next, in keeping with its sensational images, the film demonstrates the power inherent in the physical body of the monarch herself, depicting Anne—a primary figurehead for entailed authority—as a being whose apex physical presence allows her to arbitrate between all creatures, human or otherwise. In turn, Colman’s intensely corporeal portrayal of the Queen seems to evoke the contemporaneous writing on politics and animal nature found in John Locke and Alexander Pope. Finally, in focusing on the body and whimsical desires of the monarch, the film revitalizes the concept of conservative restoration, where certain groups are given arbitrary status because of their bodies, so that other groups who have worked to achieve equality will be forced back into subservience. Like the best satires, the film parodies this method of conservative social engineering so that we take it seriously in our own age.

The view of power

In The Favourite, the screen regularly curves and warps around a single focal point. The 6mm fisheye lens employed by cinematographer Robbie Ryan turns sprawling palatial courtyards and kitchens, symbols for the accumulated decadence of the late English Restoration, into tight pockets of surveillance.[7] In contrast with one of the film’s clearest predecessors, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975)—another wry take on eighteenth-century social-climbing—Lanthimos’s vast panoramas of the countryside are claustrophobic, not grand and picturesque.[8] Other visual tactics have the effect of “folding” characters into their backgrounds. While Ryan uses the wide shot to convey the enormity of royal ballrooms and hallways, he regularly does so with single figures inhabiting the frame. Enveloped by space and decorative patterns, characters sometimes seem to hide within the shot itself, making them agents of clandestine affairs, rather than focal points in a dramatic narrative. However, these compositions can have the opposite effect. By focusing on single characters that seem to be overtaken by their surroundings, Lanthimos places viewers in the position to spot illicit activities and private reactions within the grander context of royal space, where civic decisions are made. Indeed, there are other production choices that place audience members in the role of intimate confidant, much like Sarah and Abigail. Throughout, placards of wry text cut the film into various chapters, mimicking the early printed book and putting viewers into a similar position as the secluded, individual reader. Even the font kerning on the title cards and credits emphasizes isolation, as letters within single words are sometimes stretched apart from one another, split across margins, or placed on entirely different lines.

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] 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 [16, 17].[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.

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.

This intentional jumble of the “chaotic” natural environments with the “orderly” spaces and rituals of aristocracy also implies a kind of anthropological breakdown of the borders between civilization and wilderness, where struggles between human and non-human animals become indistinguishable from one another [32]. Of course, Anne is the central figure in this arrangement. At the top of her kingdom, she is also a “queen of the forest,” bringing the natural environment indoors in an attempt to master and control it. Her acceptance of a muddy Abigail, who mimics a snarling bear when she enters the palace for the first time, corresponds with the decorations of Anne’s bedroom, a space covered in vine-laden tapestries and pastoral scenes, images stacked on images, as if representation itself could reproduce organically. The final shot of the film repeats this visual technique. It is a triple exposure that overlays a profile of the queen, a shot of Abigail submitting to her authority, and a closeup of scurrying rabbits.

Once again, these details have some foundation in eighteenth-century culture. As Tobias Meneley points out in his reading of Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest (1713), a poem dedicated to Anne and her leadership, the Queen was celebrated by the era’s cultural figures as a mythic huntress, or Diana, who "inaugurated a period of ‘Golden Days’” in England by expanding its “royal hunting grounds” through imperial conquest and diplomacy with other nations.[21] As “[t]h' immortal huntress,” Anne, in Pope’s words, “protects the sylvan reign,” and stands in “Earth's fair light…Empress of the main.”[22] According to Meneley, the Anne of Windsor Forest also presides over the “field sports” of the country’s freemen, who experience her sovereignty vicariously in their freedom to trek across and control land. [23] But in Lanthimos’s portrayal, Anne rarely goes outside and must have nature brought to her, inverting Pope’s interpretation of the queen. Even when characters interact outdoors, the camera makes the spaces in which they appear restrictive and claustrophobic, locations rife with antagonists.Unlike the swains in Windsor Forest, who “range the hills, the gameful woods beset, / Wind the shrill horn, or spread the waving net,” all bodies here must be managed and disciplined.[24]

Along with his Dianic appraisal of the “great ANNA,” Pope describes the monarch as a “chaste…Queen” with a “virgin train.”[25] Given the carnal rivalries that drive the narrative in The Favourite—especially its love triangle, the thing on which Deborah Davis’s and Tony McNamara’s screenplay concentrates—Pope’s mythologizing of Anne’s life may be another cultural representation parodied by the film. And yet, there are some details that remain faithful to the pastoral vision in Windsor Forest, at least obliquely. Anne, who historically died without issue, keeps 17 rabbits in her bedroom, creatures that stand-in for each of her deceased children. As “heirs” to the Stuart line, Anne’s pets provide Lanthimos another opportunity to indict aristocracy: a cliché of a fertile animal, rabbits will never be able to carry on the queen’s legacy. Of course, the irony only goes so far. Aside from the real pain that Anne feels for the loss of so many children—heartache that has been transferred into her stewardship of domestic animals—the end of her lineage could have world-historical implications. As Davis reveals, her original script (titled Balance of Power) concerned England’s shift from “a despotic monarchy to a constitutional monarch.”[26] While the film that eventually made it to screen shows the rise of such constitutionalism, with advisers and parliamentary lords squabbling for influence around the fading sovereign, Anne’s despotism oftentimes expresses itself as a dominion over all of the organic life that can be contained within the walls of the palace. If rabbits are allowed to hop around the bedroom, then food piles up on the palace’s feasting tables and fresh flowers crest over wood credenzas and across the dance hall, demonstrating the abundance of her kingdom. Of course, when Abigail threatens one of her animal children in the final scene, a sickly Anne reasserts herself as the apex creature, physically pushing Abigail to the floor and standing over her. Here, Lanthimos seems to convert Pope’s vision of the queen as responsible steward of nature into a figure whose struggle to keep hold of her crown—or the very idea of the crown—manifests as a gross display of authority over every living thing.

To put this another way, the politics of the film synthesize Davis’s interpretation of shifting English civic sovereignty with Lanthimos’s esoteric interest in the animal body and the excesses of organic life. Here, two rival political philosophies of the English Restoration feature on screen: an incipient republicanism—what political historian J.G.A. Pocock says arises with a “Whig oligarchy” licensed by the “Hanoverian succession” of 1714, the year in which Lanthimos’s film ends—and absolute monarchy.[27] This ideological contest appears as a divide between rhetorical persuasion and sheer physical dominance, with the devious strategists such as Sarah, Abigail, and a Parliamentary claque pitted against the queen and her unassailable animal body. And, although The Favourite hints at Anne’s tragic fall, when the final credits roll, she is, quite literally, still standing. Encapsulating the conflict between the strategists who attempt to manipulate the queen and the utter corporeal supremacy of her position, Anne says, when presented with a couple of lobsters, “I thought we could race them and then eat them.”

The restoration of power

Peter Bradshaw has called The Favourite a “punk” version of Restoration drama.[28] It is cinema that reminds us of the nasty, brutish, and gross qualities of the royals, not their typical portrayal as sentimental, mawkish, or even silly creatures. But, while it gets some punk cred by disobeying the usual aesthetics of the blue-blood period piece, the film nevertheless remains a canny take on conservatism, not its subversion. Here, Lanthimos reminds us that to be a true conservative—a believer in entailed authority, social hierarchy, and illusory phenomena that exist beyond all reason—is to imagine that one has the license to do anything merely because the body you inhabit has priority over others.[29]

In this way, the film is not just a satire of a longstanding civic ideology, but a commentary on global politics right now. Presently, numerous modern democracies have been shaken by authoritarian figures that, regardless of their crudeness, amorality, or excesses, promise to restore an old, steady order. While the classic definition of conservatism holds that it is an attempt to attenuate progress—not to impede it altogether or to roll it back—this current movement reveals what has always been one of conservatism’s founding principles: the reinstatement of a rigid system of classification between bodies, especially after successful public campaigns for equality, or campaigns that are on the doorstep of success. This is why political theorist Corey Robin calls the primary goal of conservatism “recovery and restoration,” instead of “preservation and protection.”[30] Its adherents aim to resurrect a state where “men are [seen to be] naturally unequal,” even when they showcase their merits or talents.[31]

The Favourite exemplifies this principle by representing the final days of one of the original monarchic restorations as a sequence of rituals premised on physical subjugation, where, in the end, skill and shrewd manipulation simply do not matter. Indeed, among many of its provocative anachronisms, the film suggests that conservatism emerges 75 years before it was articulated by European counterrevolutionaries, such as Joseph De Maistre and the predominant voice for English conservativism, Edmund Burke. Of note here is Burke’s famous claim about the irreverent Jacobins and their levelling philosophy: “On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order.”[32] Recalling the civic philosophy of the original English revolution—around which circulated Locke’s theories of hierarchy and sovereignty—Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France frames conservative renewal as a rejection of the egalitarian “theory” of the revolutionaries and a reclamation of venerable institutions, “embodied” as they are by certain, select individuals.[33] The Jacobin nation demonstrates the “wrong” kind of nature; it will be animalistic, “gross, stupid, [and] ferocious.”[34] The inherited system, however, represents nature that has been tamed and civilized, draped in “the wardrobe of a moral imagination”.[35]

One of the savvier aspects of the film, then, is that it exposes the Burkean language of purity and ethical renewal as a mere cover for uglier motivations. It reveals that an “embodied” restoration can be equally “gross…[and] ferocious” in its attempts to put certain people back in charge, simply because they were in charge before.[36] In the case of the United States (and, perhaps, Brazil and India, both undergoing their own authoritarian revivals), such moments of restoration are typically framed in ethno-religious terms. “For the most ardent elements in [this] ‘coalition of restoration,’” says longtime U.S. politics journalist Ronald Brownstein, are “voters who are resistant to demographic change.”[37] The “backward-facing promise” of ethnic supremacy can be laundered through scripture as its adherents are also, purportedly, among the country's most religious citizens.[38]

While these tactics are not new, what is perhaps novel about the current situation is the elimination of any ethical pretense for the restoration, Burke’s “moral imagination.” This time, the attempt to recover a fantastical, pre-modern civic life does not feature a strong moral iconology that popular culture can reflect, as in, say, Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King (2003). In that film, the conflict between the champions of light and their howling orc adversaries could stand as a metaphor for the neoconservative’s global “coalition of the willing,” and their decision to split the world into “good guys” and “axes of evil.”[39] Currently, though, there is no Manichean moral logic—however childish—onto which the acts of, for example, the previous U.S. administration can be mapped. To paraphrase a recent piece on the state of its governance, the amorality is the point; the point is the assertion of power through the meticulous separation of bodies from one another without even the pretense of virtue.[40]

The Favourite’s depiction of a restored ruling order based on sheer, physical hierarchy appears to make it one of the early cinematic touchstones of twenty-first-century global autocracy. (It’s also an indication of why T.V. shows such as House of Cards [2013-8] already feel dated: aside from the fact that members of the previous U.S. executive were  regularly more outlandish than the Underwood gang, the president rarely even attempted to manipulate public opinion, perhaps the hallmark of civic modernity, in any serious way). Magnified by Lanthimos’s film, the idea of the animal or the animalistic became the first principle of governance, where one ruled by instinct, projected “strength” through physical posturing, and organized society based on taxonomic ranking. Along with the eugenic connotations of the 45th U.S. president’s fascination with “good genes,” one also notes how often he compared his opponents to “dogs,” or claimed that they had been humiliated “like dogs.”[41] His preferred method of classification is to brand people as humans, non-humans, and superhumans.

However, what completes the film’s satire is its allegorizing of a new arrangement of power through an old one. Following this logic, Sarah appears simultaneously as the conventional “evil counselor” of Restoration drama, pulling the sovereign’s strings, and a longtime inside-player in the halls of power. Abigail, on the other hand, might represent the picaresque upstart of a variety of Augustan-era fictions, as well as the current, telegenic sycophants who orbit executive power. Perhaps, like Abigail, whose family has fallen from prominence before the film begins, these hangers-on act to recover what they believe is a complete loss of social status among “the elites,” even if it means appearing clownish, as the one-time serving girl does in a closing scene of drunken revelry. But neither type of adviser can control the regime in the end. They are fundamentally different from the singular executive and the primal register through which it legitimates itself. They may have arguments, discourse, and persuasion, but the sovereign will always have the apex body, no matter how diminished it becomes.[42]

And yet, while The Favourite presents a retrograde politics founded on physical hierarchy, it can also be surprisingly progressive. The film equates the pursuit of political power with queer desire; it makes civic life the actual—not merely symbolic—domain of non-human animals, beings that cannot always be subjugated or dismissed by humanity; and it recognizes Anne’s disabilities without turning them into an outlet for superhuman gifts. At its most effective, the film undercuts even its own grisly depiction of despotism. Lanthimos’s interpretation of the ugly restoration we are living through contains some of the best retorts to its beastliness.[43]

Notes

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my readers at Jump Cut for their helpful, insightful commentary on an earlier version of this essay. Thanks also to Charles Kantor, with whom I first saw The Favourite. After the credit roll, we immediately started discussing its politics.

1. Colman is quoted in Malina Saval, “Olivia Colman Compares Donald Trump to the ‘Madness … and Instability’ of Queen Anne,” Variety.com (January 4, 2019): https://variety.com/2019/scene/awards/olivia-colman-donald-trump-palm-springs-the-favourite-1203099226/.

2. Ibid.

3. See Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York: Oxford UP, 1983). “Nature” might be one of the most complex terms in Williams’s Keywords. However, early in his entry, Williams invokes Burke, one of the originators of political conservatism, to provide a definition of nature as “an essential quality and characteristic of human beings to do something,” a fixed core of humanity that rejects constructivism and external social engineering (220). See also J.G.A. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985). The idea of nature as a telos from which humanity cannot depart underpins a theory of eighteenth-century civic virtue. According to J.G.A. Pocock, by the late seventeenth century, prominent Whigs—proponents of “active self-rule”—had accepted and internalized these preconditions and restrictions as the companion to liberty" (41).

4. For the film as a depiction of historical events, see Justin Kirkland, “The Lesbian Storyline in The Favourite Is Rooted in Fact,” Esquire.com (February 24, 2019):https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/
movies/a26254343/the-favourite-true-story-queen-anne-explained/
; for gthe arish and odd style of the film, see Eliza Brooke, “The Strange, Beautiful, Gross Aesthetic of The Favourite,” Vox.com (February 21, 2019): https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/2/21/18233815/
favourite-oscars-visual-costumes-makeup-cake
.

5. See David Marno, “Center Court,” The L.A. Review of Books (December 28, 2018): https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/center-court. Marno reads the politics of the film in almost the opposite way that I do, as a film that “remind[s] us that the court is not a primitive version of modern political power but an altogether different institution, one that grounds power in the sovereign’s body.” I claim that the film stages the current rebirth of this very principle—even to the level of its “primitive” iconography and practices.

6. For an early modern example of the state designed around empirical knowledge—and employing spies to gather it—see Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1626), in Francis Bacon and Thomas Campanella, The New Atlantis and The City of the Sun: Two Classic Utopias (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2003), esp. 38-9. “For the several employments and offices of our fellows,” says a rector of Bacon’s powerful Solomon House, “we have twelve that sail into foreign countries under the names of other nations (for our own we conceal), who bring us the books and abstracts, and patterns of experiments of all other parts” (38). See also Frederick G. Whelan, Hume and Machiavelli: Political Realism and Liberal Thought (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004), 284.

7. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan and his technical choices are mentioned in Chris O'Falt, “’The Favourite’: Oscar Nod Likely for DP Robbie Ryan, But Damned If He Knows Why,” Indiewire.com (December 12, 2018): https://www.indiewire.com/2018/12/the-favourite-cinematographer-robbie-ryan-yorgos-lanthimos-1202027430/.

8. This is not to say that the static, picturesque images in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon are uninteresting. Critics regularly point to the tension that the film establishes between narrative—or historical—forward motion and the inertia produced by the cultural rituals and aristocratic conventions in which Lyndon participates, an inertia typified by the still shot. For example, see J.P. Telotte, “The Organic Narrative: Word and Image in Barry Lyndon,” Film Criticism 3.3 (1979): 18-31.

9. See Michael Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1995), 27, 218. “…[P]ower and knowledge directly imply one another,” says Foucault, “...there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does no presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” (27).

10. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, Kate Soper (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 34. For Foucault, modern power/knowledge, or pouvoir-savoir (233), takes two shapes, “the power of knowledge of the truth and the power to disseminate this knowledge” (34).

11. Foucault, Power/Knowledge, 146-65.

12. I am thinking of Laura Mulvey’s classic claim that cinematic voyeurism takes place between men and women, binary subjects that constitute one another. See Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, vol. 16, No.3 (1975), 6-18. For a queering of this concept—and a retort to Mulvey’s idea of “sadistic” voyeurism— see Barbara Mennel, The Representation of Masochism and Queer Desire in Film and Literature, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), 154-7.

13. ---

14. Angelos Koutsourakis, “Cinema of the Body,” Cinema, vol. 3 (2012), 84-108, 99.

15. Koutsourakis, “Cinema of the Body,” 85, 95.

16. Koutsourakis, “Cinema of the Body,” 96.

17. For the split between the king’s “body natural” and “body politic” in medieval political theory, see Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2016), 7-23.

18. Kantorowicz, King’s Two Bodies, 13.

19. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988), 161.

20. Heather Keenleyside, Animals and Other People: Literary Forms and Living Beings in the Long Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 18.

21. Tobias Meneley, The Animal Claim: Sensibility and the Creaturely Voice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 99.

22. Alexander Pope, Selected Poetry (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998), 24-5.

23. Meneley, The Animal Claim, 99.

24. Pope, Selected Poetry, 23.

25. Pope, Selected Poetry, 29, 24.

26. Davis is quoted in Matt Grober, “Screenwriters Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara Break Down Their Long, Gratifying Journeys With ‘The Favourite,’” Deadline.com (January 13, 2019): https://deadline.com/2019/01/the-favourite-deborah-davis-tony-mcnamara-oscars-screenwriting-interview-1202520990/.

27. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce, and History, 239.

28. Peter Bradshaw, "The Favourite Review," The Guardian (August 30, 2018): https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/aug/30/the-favourite-review-olivia-colman-yorgos-lanthimos.

29. I associate these “original” conservative qualities with Edmund Burke’s defense of European constitutional monarchy in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Especially relevant are Burke’s thoughts on the supernatural qualities of the French Revolution. Despite chiding the revolutionaries for operating on the principle of “speculation”—and going beyond the bounds of known systems of practices—Burke locates the strength of the old regime in its ability to produce “pleasing illusions” that would soften and restrain the population (114). See Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (London: J. Dodsley, 1791), throughout. See also Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2018), 70-1.

30. Robin, The Reactionary Mind, 56.

31. Robin, The Reactionary Mind, 194.

32. Burke, Reflections, 114.

33. Burke, Reflections, 255, 115.

34. Burke, Reflections, 118.

35. Burke, Reflections, 114.

36. Burke, Reflections, 115, 118.

37. Ronald Brownstein, “Donald Trump’s Coalition of Restoration,” The Atlantic (June 23, 2016): https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/06/donald-trumps-coalition-of-restoration/488345/.

38. Ronald Brownstein, “America, a Year Later,” State Magazine (November 2017): https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2017/politics/state/2016-election-anniversary/.

39. For the black-and-white thinking that legitimated the Iraq war, see “Remarks by Donald Rumsfeld at the 2005 Washington Conference on the Americas,” (May 3, 2005), transcript: https://www.as-coa.org/articles/remarks-donald-rumsfeld-2005-washington-conference-americas. George W. Bush used the phrase “axis of evil” for the first time in his 2002 state of the union. See “President Delivers State of the Union Address” (January 29, 2002), transcript: https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html. He used the phrase “coalition of the willing” later that year, in a speech at a NATO summit in Prague. See “Bush: Join 'coalition of willing,'” CNN.com (November 20, 2002): http://edition.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/europe/11/20/prague.bush.nato/.

40. See Adam Serwer, “The Cruelty is the Point,” The Atlantic (October 3, 2018): https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/the-cruelty-is-the-point/572104/. “It is that cruelty,” says Serwer, “and the delight it brings them, that binds [the president’s] most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright.”

41. For a searchable repository of all of the 45th U.S. President’s tweets, see “Trump Twitter Archive,” https://www.thetrumparchive.com/, visited July 2019.

42. There is another allegory of modernity here. Even though Anne could represent a revanchist government premised on restoring strict social hierarchy, she might also symbolize the modern political shift away from edicts and laws and towards the overt control of bodies. In other words, she may be a consummate representation of, as Cary Wolfe has shown, a polis centered on biopolitics instead of sovereignty (24). Invested in the relationship between non-human animals and political subjectivity, Wolfe’s scholarship also clarifies, among other aspects, the film’s culinary motifs. Known for her unrestrained diet, Anne illustrates the “‘carnophallogocentrism’” reserved for a head of state, the one who can eat anything they want and, by extension, exerts ultimate authority over others (95). See Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

43. In her review of The Favourite, Namwali Serpell also sees the film’s complex representation of “beasts” and humans as licensing a "complex, contradictory" feminism affiliated with “real women.” See Namwali Serpell, “Beastly: The Bad Women of The Favourite,” New York Review of Books (December 9, 2018): https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/12/09/beastly-the-bad-women-of-the-favourite/.