Yorgos Lanthimos and the Dynamics of Power
At a glance, Yorgos Lanthimos’ films are filled with idiosyncrasies that has made him stand out as one of the freshest voices of the 2010s. His stilted Brechtian dialogue that both distances and engages the audience to the drama unfolding on screen. His penchant to have his stories set in worlds just left of our world and have them act as microcosms for some larger point. And there’s my personal favorite: the act of turning sexual and violent acts into deadpan displays for equal parts laughter and horror. However, glancing at his 2018 film The Favourite, you would see some of those trademarks absent or diminished. The Brechtian dialogue is traded in for period-piece appropriate banter, albeit with the bounciness and ferocity of a screwball comedy and an occasional anachronistic flourish (someone uses the phrase “career suicide ” at some point). The world is technically our world of 18th century Britain but even then Lanthimos is playing “Calvinball” with the historical accuracy of the events and films subjects. Also, it’d be lying to say the deadpan violence and sex isn’t there but there’s life imbued in these carnal acts more often than not this time around.
Yet, as far as I’m concerned, the most overarching characteristic of a Yorgos Lanthimos film is his fascination with power dynamics between characters and their environments. In Dogtooth this comes in the form of three kids who are raised in a home compound by their parents to believe only what they tell them about the outside world. They are conditioned, rewarded and punished at the whims of their parents’ judgment and as outside influences begin to invade the compound, the eldest daughter starts challenging that power dynamic in her own way. The Lobster has Colin Farrell playing a character named David (a fine name) squaring off not only against the power of a magical realist hotel that turns single people into animals if they don’t find a romantic partner in 45 days, but also the power structures and absurdities of a society that values superficial connections between these people. David’s actions and choices are constantly being influenced and determined by the power the other hotel guests (and people outside the hotel) have over him. 2017’s Killing of a Sacred Deer is about a doctor (once again played by Farrell) and his family dealing with what is essentially a vengeful Old Testament God that leaves the man with only the power to take the life of someone he loves to balance the scales to atone for sins of his past. While his family is powerless to stop this “god” from bringing down his punishment, they do have the power to sway the patriarch’s feeling to favor each of their own desires.
Each of these films in some way touches on the interpersonal dynamics of power, and I feel The Favourite takes those power dynamics and levels the playing field a bit. In the film, Olivia Colman plays the depressed and sickly Queen Anne of England, while Rachel Weisz plays her adviser and secret lover Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Sarah has been essentially running the country through the Queen when Sarah’s impoverished cousin Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) shows up one day seeking work in Anne’s court. Abigail, realizing the Queen is susceptible to acts of kindness and flattery, ingratiates herself into her good graces behind Sarah’s back. So begins a game of political intrigue and power plays. Abigail and Sarah’s (as well as a few select men of the court) tongues drip venom as they go tit for tat for Anne’s affection.
Yet in this triangle no one seems to truly have the upper hand at all times. Sarah is without a doubt ruling the kingdom when the film begins and has Anne’s utter confidence and affection (the film toys with how much Sarah really cares for the Queen but ultimately lands on the passion being real) and has a decent amount of power over Abigail’s position in the court, but her icy and frank demeanor can’t always compete with Abigail’s ability to play teacher’s pet to an incredibly insecure monarch. While Abigail can brown nose with the best of them and is willing to go to any lengths to impress and satisfy those around her, she can’t always hide her true nature (take the final scene of the movie for instance). Anne is deep into her depression and can’t be bothered to be fully aware as her responsibilities as a queen during wartime and the game being played for her favor sparks what little joy she has left in her life, leaving her vulnerable to deception. However, she is the queen and holds absolute power over the fates of both of these women when all is said and done.
You can see all of Lanthimos’ influences shining throughout the film. Abigail is seemingly modeled after Ryan O’Neal’s titular Barry Lyndon, a commoner and con artist seeking aspirations too big for their britches. The cynical bite of the dialogue and the nastiness of the dealings on display is reminiscent of Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman Contract. The intensity of this toxic love triangle and how Abigail and Sarah banter back and forth immediately sent my brain spiraling back to the psychological drama of Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession and the scenes involving Mark and Heinrich (played by Sam Neil and Heinz Bennett respectively) having philosophical arguments criticizing each other’s very nature and the nature of their relationship with Anna (Isabelle Adjani).
But the movie to me bears a striking resemblance to Charles Vidor’s 1946 film Gilda. It also tells the story of a common con man named Johnny Farrell (played by Glenn Ford) who aspires to be a big shot when he’s noticed by a genuine big shot named Ballin Mundson (George Macready), who runs an illegal upscale casino. Mundson puts Farrell on as a dealer, seeing his deft skills at cutting cards, and introduces him to his wife Gilda (the incredible Rita Hayworth) and from there a triangle is formed where each character holds some sort of sway over the other characters. Mundson controls Farrell but can’t control Gilda; Farrell controls Gilda somewhat and can deceive Mundson up to a point; and Gilda has her own power over these two men while not really having power over her own life. The Favourite plays with these roles in similar fashion with one key exception. Gilda portrays Farrell and Gilda getting together as a triumph whereas The Favourite shows that people’s natures don’t ever truly change and no happiness is sprung from one person triumphing over another. If anything, the ending of The Favourite and the rest of Lanthimos’ work shows that the best outcome these power dynamics can bring is shallow justice and bleak amusement.
David Yoder has two degrees in drawing comics, but he probably spends more time watching movies than drawing comics. He’s watched the 5-hour TV edit of Fanny and Alexander and also every Planet of the Apes movie (including the Tim Burton one).
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.