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“Early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving.” If you guessed these opening lines from the press notes of the new Yorgos Lanthimos movie, it’s a testament to how bizarre, how surreal, how unique and instantly identifiable this filmmaker’s signature is. The Favourite is a departure from Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It’s not just the setting, with Baroque music, lots of lusty profanity, the foppiest wigs since Barry Lyndon, and much talk about the doubling of land tax. “The parlous state of the treasury” is a top candidate for Phrases You Didn’t Know You’d Find In a Yorgos Lanthimos Movie.

Strangely though, the material fits. I loved Lobster, but the contrivances in Sacred Deer seemed gimmicky and manipulative, as though Lanthimos were desperately trying to out-weird himself. On the heels of these films, The Favourite, at first, got me thinking: “Okay, so what’s the big, never-before, borderline-cruel conceit here?” The conceit is that there isn’t one. For a change, Lanthimos is handling someone else’s screenplay (Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara), and this liberates him as an artist. The emotional sadism hasn’t disappeared entirely. One of the early scenes invites us to laugh at a woman who has muddied herself after falling out of a horse carriage. (A man inside pinched her buttocks when she was trying to step out.) And rabbit lovers be warned: at least one furry creature is in danger of being squished under a pointed heel. The weirdness is there, too: in cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s mix of wide shots (that magnify) and fisheye-lens views (the contract and warp), and in the score that generates tension with just two tones, from a low-note piano key and what sounds like a rusty gate creaking open. 

But for the first time, a Lanthimos film doesn’t feel like a very clever (and mechanical) game. Your heart breaks when you learn why those rabbits exist, and how their owner, Queen Anne, delivers to us this bit of information. Olivia Colman gives a shattering performance as Anne. The character is constantly ailing, very temperamental and more than a mite foolish — but in Colman’s hands, Anne isn’t someone you laugh at so much as pity. At last, a Lanthimos character that feels like an actual human being (which is not a diss on the androidy occupants of his earlier films; just that the change of pace is nice and needed).

At its heart – and despite chapter titles like “I Dreamed I Stabbed You In the Eye” – The Favourite is a love story. What is love? Lying that someone looks like an angel, or telling the truth that their ghastly eye makeup makes them look like a badger? The two women who embody these spectrums — and vie for the post of the Queen’s, um, favourite — are Lady Sarah (a superbly chilly Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone). Sarah is Anne’s friend, and helps in governing the country. But there’s more to this relationship, as Abigail discovers. (Stone is brilliantly cast against type — her innate adorability proves a cunning cover for the viper Abigail comes to be seen as.) Abigail is Sarah’s cousin, fallen on bad days, and she seeks a job in the palace. She slowly climbs to the position of Sarah’s maid. But is that enough? One day, while shooting game birds, Sarah is amused by Abigail’s utter lack of talent for the sport. “We’ll make a killer of you yet,” she smiles. Little does she know how prophetic this will be.

In short, we are witnessing a game-of-thrones version of All About Eve, with Sarah as the Bette Davis equivalent and Abigail as the 18th-century Anne Baxter. “I’m on my side always,” she declares. She’s furious when things don’t go per plan, and one of the film’s many memorable images is Abigail barrelling down the palace corridors, yelling, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” But even she comes to be seen as a sympathetic figure. The sadness, finally, seeps in — the player is trapped in her own game. And Lanthimos snaps out of the mannered sameness that was threatening to suffocate his work. Still, fans needn’t worry. We do get a duck named Horatio, whose quack performs the function of a perfectly timed punchline. This time, though, you’re smiling.

***

One of the many dilemmas at a festival, when faced with a clash: Olivier Assayas or Orson Welles? Double vies (Non-fiction), with Guillaume Canet and Juliette Binoche, or The Other Side of the Wind, with John Huston? A colleague said I could watch the latter film on Netflix, at my leisure, but I was fresh from Roma, and the prospect of a big-screen experience of a much-awaited movie (nearly 40 years in the making, with its legend steadily ballooning as the great masterpiece we would never see) was too hard to resist. It was a mistake. I should have waited to watch it on Netflix, without the surrounding festival hype. No film can live up to that kind of backstory – certainly not this wildly experimental mix of meta joke and exhausting mess.

It probably helps if you’ve read This is Orson Welles, the book of conversations between Welles and the filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. One, the pages about The Other Side of the Wind are far more interesting than anything in this movie.

It probably helps if you’ve read This is Orson Welles, the book of conversations between Welles and the filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. One, the pages about The Other Side of the Wind are far more interesting than anything in this movie. (They also give you context, which is absent here). And two, the filmmaker-acolyte relationship between Welles and Bogdanovich is mirrored in the one between the Hollywood director, Jake Hannaford (John Huston, with the cigar-chomping tycoon-swagger he embodied so memorably in Chinatown), and Brooks Otterlake (Bogdanovich himself). The conversations around, say, Shakespeare (“he knew all about dissolves”) are almost facsimiles of the ones we find in the book. And what meta shadings! Hannaford is a legend who’s struggling to complete his latest picture (hint, hint!), which is called… The Other Side of the Wind. 

This is certainly an interesting film, shot in 16mm and 35mm, and alternating between black-and-white and colour, sometimes within the same scene. One part of The Other Side of the Wind is about Hannaford and Otterlake in a car, chatting as enraptured “cinéastes” in the seat behind video-record every moment as though these were utterances from God. Another part of the film deals with the happenings at Hannaford’s 70th birthday party, with a host of acolytes and at least one critic (a wickedly acidic Susan Strasberg). But the most fascinating part, conceptually at least, is the screening of Hannaford’s film for a bemused distributor. The “trippy” footage looks like the love child of Antonioni and Andy Warhol. It reminded me of when another Classic Era director, Elia Kazan, went all hip with The Arrangement (1969), after Euro-influenced New Hollywood films like Bonnie and Clyde began to change the American moviescape. Is Welles like Kazan, a clueless older-era director who is, in the distributor’s words, “trying to get with it?” Or is he in on the joke, making his own movie even while commenting on New Hollywood? That we’ll never know may be Welles’s ultimate Rosebud.

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