The opening shot of 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a close-up of open-heart surgery. Anyone who’s seen a Yorgos Lanthimos movie, however, probably wasn’t entirely surprised by that shocking image. Thanks to previous films such as Dogtooth and The Lobster, the Greek director has conditioned audiences to flinch, assaulting us with upsetting sights and disturbing ideas. But that pumping, vulnerable organ at the start of The Killing of a Sacred Deer feels symbolic of a theme that runs throughout his darkly comic oeuvre. In a Lanthimos film, characters have to work very hard to protect their heart. Otherwise, they’ll be destroyed.
His new film, The Favourite, is ostensibly a satire of the musty costume dramas we’ve all seen dozens of times. It tells the story of England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), a lonely, unwell 18th-century monarch who’s attended to by Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), with whom she’s engaged in a secret affair. But their happy arrangement is interrupted by Abigail (Emma Stone), a lowly commoner who shows up at the palace offering her services to the queen. Sarah is suspicious of Abigail’s motives, but Anne starts to take a shine to this kindly, attractive young woman. Sarah tries to warn Anne, but the queen’s mistake is listening to her heart.
Lanthimos’ films are often thought of as wickedly dark comedies that have a jaundiced view of humanity. 2010’s Dogtooth depicted a bizarre family scenario in which the parents keep their adult children locked inside the house, feeding them lies about how scary the outside world is. 2012’s Alps was about an odd professional service that allows bereft clients to hire people to play their recently-deceased loved ones. 2016’s The Lobster imagined a future society where everyone must be paired up with a significant other — those who are single will be turned into animals. And The Killing of a Sacred Deer introduced us to a successful doctor, husband and father (Colin Farrell) who befriends a young man (Barry Keoghan) who somehow has the power to make the man’s family members die slowly.
Clearly, these aren’t ideal date movies — especially if you or your partner has an allergy to seeing dogs get killed, people smash themselves in the face with hammers or toasters being used as torture implements. But emphasizing what’s peculiar and bleak in Lanthimos’ films is to miss what’s really at their center — a fear of being hurt, of losing control, of never finding anyone who really understands you. Above all, his films grapple with the terror of wearing your heart on your sleeve.
In the typical Lanthimos movie, reliable institutions like family and marriage — even the monarchy — fall apart in front of our eyes, and the characters don’t quite know what to do with themselves. And that collapse is usually connected to a sudden influx of unfiltered, raw emotion. In Alps, the trouble starts when one of the surrogates starts to get too attached to her client. The hermetically-sealed family from Dogtooth is torn asunder by an outsider who interferes with the parents’ grip on this sheltered homestead. Genuine sentiment is often something that sparks horror in his films. In The Lobster, for instance, Colin Farrell’s character discovers that finding a soul mate is a lot less important than pretending you have a soul mate — there’s no such thing as true love, you see, and so, it’s best not to risk actually falling for anyone who might end up hurting you.
These concerns come to the fore in The Favourite, which is all about the ways that people try to gain advantage over other people by preying on their needs. Sarah truly loves Anne, but she also enjoys the access to power that her close relationship to the queen provides her. (Essentially, Sarah rules the kingdom since Anne is too ill to focus on such matters.) But Sarah also finds emotional stability in their love affair — which she only realizes once Abigail tries to insinuate herself into the queen’s life. While Sarah insists on giving Anne the occasional dose of tough love — telling her when she’s being bratty or doesn’t look good in a certain kind of makeup — Abigail just flatters her endlessly, knowing that her charms will work on the fragile ruler.
But does Abigail really love Anne? Or does she have something fiendish in mind? I won’t reveal exactly what happens in The Favourite, but what’s so good about the movie is that, instead of becoming a simple All About Eve–like catfight for control of the crown, Lanthimos’ comedy shows how scary emotional sincerity can be. We witness this largely through Anne, whose vulnerability is a product of her very sad life. Sure, she rules all she sees, but after a string of heartbreaking deaths — she lost 17 children, mostly from stillborn births and miscarriages — she’s a walking wound, desperate to have someone to love.
As played by Olivia Colman, Anne is the most nakedly emotional character ever in a Yorgos Lanthimos film — so, of course, she’s also the most helpless. In his films, people have learned to shield their true selves away. The family in The Killing of a Sacred Deer is nearly lobotomized, no one daring to express a genuine sentiment amidst their polished, upper-class lifestyle. Dogtooth’s parents have created their own reality as a way to keep their children safe and dependent. Grieving in Alps is reduced to a strange kind of theater, the mourners interacting with actors who fake emotions that allow the living to feel better about themselves. The character who opens her heart in The Lobster is the one who ends up in the most desperate situation.
Queen Anne’s fate isn’t much rosier in The Favourite, but there’s a cruel irony lurking underneath Lanthimos’ prickly absurdist comedies. Sure, being an emotionally accessible person in his films usually makes you a target. But, the filmmaker seems to be arguing, what’s the alternative? Rather than being honest and open, characters speak in a strange, clipped diction, and they behave in ways that make them feel robotic or heavily medicated — they’re barely human beings at all. That’s why that opening shot from The Killing of a Sacred Deer is so shocking. It’s that rare time where we actually see a beating heart in his films — or a reminder that these people are actually alive.
Here are three other takeaways from The Favourite.
#1. I wish I hadn’t done research on the history of gout.
In The Favourite, Queen Anne battles a nasty bout of gout, which was an affliction the real Queen Anne had. Gout’s not something I hear about much — I wasn’t sure if it was something like, say, scurvy that was just an old-timey disease — so I decided to do some research. I now regret that.
According to WebMD, the site you check first when you want to convince yourself that rash you have is probably cancer, “Gout is a kind of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints. Uric acid is a breakdown product of purines that are part of many foods we eat. An abnormality in handling uric acid and crystallization of these compounds in joints can cause attacks of painful arthritis, kidney stones and blockage of the kidney filtering tubules with uric acid crystals, leading to kidney failure. Gout has the unique distinction of being one of the most frequently recorded medical illnesses throughout history.”
So, congratulations: If you have gout, you’re not that special. In fact, it appears that we’ve been diagnosing gout since 2640 B.C., when the Egyptians discovered that people were suffering from what would later be called “the unwalkable disease.” One of the easiest ways to get gout was to be royalty. According to a 2006 paper, “Throughout history, gout has been associated with rich foods and excessive alcohol consumption. Because it is clearly associated with a lifestyle that, at least in the past, could only be afforded by the affluent, gout has been referred to as the ‘disease of kings.’”
Anne’s gout makes it painful for her to walk, and while people can be affected on their hands and elbows as well, the really disgusting photos I found online are for people who have gout on their feet and toes. BTW, I’m not linking to these photos — I suffered so you don’t have to.
What do you do if you have a gout attack? Well, see a doctor for one. But the Arthritis Foundation also suggests that you do things like drink plenty of fluids, avoid alcohol and even get a cane. My two favorite pieces of advice, though, involve cutting the toes out of your socks and doing what the site calls “Tame your sheets”: “Even the weight of your bed sheets can be unbearable to an inflamed, gouty toe. Tuck the sheet in on the sides so its end falls at calf level, leaving your painful toe free.”
No wonder Anne looks so miserable in the movie.
#2. Here’s another reason why the Oscars are silly.
There are myriad reasons to mock the Academy Awards. But one that isn’t mentioned as often is the thought process behind how studios decide what categories they’ll slot their films’ actors into. Often, this is a pretty easy determination. Ryan Gosling is the main character in First Man — spoiler alert, he’s the first man — so it makes sense that Universal would campaign for him for Best Actor. Likewise, Sam Elliott plays a side character — but an important one — in A Star Is Born, so Warner Bros.’ decision to position him for Best Supporting Actor is understandable. But what do you do with The Favourite?
The movie features three major actresses playing roles that have, basically, the same amount of screen time. They’re really all the leads, so should they all campaign for Best Actress? Or Best Supporting Actress? Fox Searchlight made the decision to split them up, and so Olivia Colman will be entered in the Best Actress field, while Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are going for Best Supporting Actress.
This may seem really inside-baseball, but why it’s interesting is that these decisions affect how viewers go into a movie. I imagine a lot of people will check out The Favourite, starring Best Actress hopeful Olivia Colman, and assume Queen Anne’s the main character. And that’s just not true — just ask Yorgos Lanthimos, who talked about these weird Oscar-category distinctions recently:
It just felt really weird that we had to do that. And I guess for practical reasons you kind of have to. But to me, from day one when we started writing the script, I felt that this was gonna be a film about these three women and they were going to be equal, and in different times within the film each different one would rise up above the others or take the lead. I wanted it to change throughout the film, and I think that’s how we did it.
Directing the film, I felt that there wasn’t one particular perspective from one character but, again, it will alternate between the three women how you view this story. It will be through all three of their viewpoints. I don’t know how you [make the category choice]. It’s really hard. But I guess for practical reasons we have to do it, and it involves how the actors feel as well. But I just would love to not have to make that choice.
The rule of thumb I always follow when trying to figure these things out is: “Whose story is being told? Who’s really driving the story?” In theory, that character is the lead. And when you think about it, Queen Anne is actually the least proactive of the three characters. Abigail and Sarah are the ones who are really jostling back and forth, trying to stay one step ahead of the other. So, in that sense, Colman probably ought to be Best Supporting Actress and the other two actresses should be up for Best Actress. But Colman’s performance is the most bravura and showy, so from that perspective, Fox Searchlight’s decision seems more reasonable.
Most human beings won’t care one way or the other. But if someone in your life asks, “Hey, why’s that one lady the lead and the other two aren’t?,” well, now you know.
#3. What’s up with that “u” in ‘The Favourite’?
As you’ve probably noticed, the title of the Lanthimos film isn’t spelled the American way. We’d write it as The Favorite, without the “u,” and when Rachel Weisz was on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert recently to promote the film, he good-naturedly teased her about that. But what was funny was that Weisz, who grew up in England, didn’t realize that the extra “u” in certain words isn’t the only way that American and British spellings differ. They also use an “s” where we use a “z.” She thought Colbert was kidding when he told her that we write “civilization” instead of “civilisation.”
“I don’t know why that happened,” Weisz says about America’s decision to drop the “u” from “flavour,” “colour” and “humour.” I don’t either — and I’ve had to deal with this weird dual reality for more than a decade. I’ve written for a British film publication since 2005, and to make my editor’s life easier, I’ve adopted a U.K. grammar style for all my pieces. I discovered that in Microsoft Word there’s a separate U.K. spellcheck option you can use. As a result, I’m basically fluent in British-isms. I can’t speak any other languages, but I know that it’s “realise,” not “realize” over there. (Also, it’s “UK” — and “US” — without the periods.)
But back to Weisz’s question: Why did this change? I looked online, and it appears we can blame our old friend Noah Webster, the guy with the dictionary named after him. I’ll turn it over to Fraser McAlpine from BBC America:
England and America went their separate ways before anyone became unduly rigorous about spelling words the same way every time. The firm nailing down of language happened in earnest during the 1800s, on both sides of the Atlantic, and thanks largely to the reforming zeal of American lexicographer Noah Webster, it was with markedly different results in the U.S. than in Victorian Britain.
Seeking to wrest control of the language from the British ruling classes, Noah wrote three books … [o]ne on grammar, one on reading, and one on spelling. His first — originally titled The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language, then The American Spelling Book, then The Elementary Spelling Book — became the standard text book from which American teachers taught spelling for 100 years, and it was from reprints and reissues of that original text that Noah began to subtly refine words, spelling them according to how they sound.
So, the next time you’re struggling to figure out if it should be “theater” or “theatre,” you can blame Webster. In his “defence,” I guess everybody needs a hobby.