“Some people just take the room they need, elbowing out intruders to take possession of a space. [...] The magic of authority, money, penises.” Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men
When watching The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest, award-winning film, I was reminded of Hustvedt’s novel The Summer Without Men, where narrator Mia, spending the summer away from her adulterous husband, encounters a series of colourful female characters. Men are somehow very much present: Mia has a psychotic event from the breakup, widows relish their time free of domestic despots, and teenagers take delight in the attention of boys. But the male characters are only evoked, not developed, and women finally take the room they need and develop an infinity of nuances. At first sight, The Favourite seems to explore the classic stereotypes about women’s relationships: the bickering, the sulking, the general nastiness that supposedly permeate all our exchanges, particularly when they are depicted by men. However, men are absent here. The Favourite was directed and co-written by a man but features no main male characters. Here, women do not fight over men, but for power. Sincere love and desire add tension to the rivalry, but men are not invited either. We are finally in the presence of real female characters, who do not exist in the space left by their masculine counterparts. Women simply elbow them out.
Women constantly bickering and fighting is a classic trope in cinema, where women are boxed into characters such as the “bitch”, the “Ballbreaker”, the “crazy one”, yanking each other’s hair, manipulating and excluding their rival or those whom they do not deem equals. They compete for the attention and desire of men, or are their victims and set themselves on a revenge path that often exploits sexual abuse as a device plot to give them a purpose. But in The Favourite, scripted by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, they’re not fighting for men, and even sexuality, which seems in a lot of narratives to be indistinguishable from power, to the point of being the only power women have, is here very much a women’s affair. While Sarah seems to truly care about Anne, sex is also one of her ways to maintain some sort of leverage on her, and she feels truly threatened when she finds out Abigail has also been sleeping with the Queen, though Abigail seems to do it solely out of self-preservation.
On the other hand, sex with men is represented as at worst rape and at best a duty: Abigail asks Lord Masham whether he is going to rape her or seduce her, and when he objects that he is a gentleman, she concludes “rape, then.” Nonetheless, when he does seduce her and marry her, she carries out her “marital duty” on their wedding night with indifference, focused on how to maintain her status. While her character has been subjected to rape to save her dad’s career, and her arrival at the castle involves an all-too-familiar scene of a sexual assault in public transport, she is not plotting revenge, nor does she consider herself a victim. We never know if Abigail is sincere in her love for Lord Masham, and it’s as irrelevant to the plot as it is to her schemes, although it helps her regain her nobility. On the other hand, Lady Malborough’s relationship with her husband is sincere but she is ready to sacrifice him for England and for Anne, and in the end, loses both the latter and the former, but seems content with him.
Another box into which women are too often confined is the expectation of motherhood. Motherhood is depicted in The Favourite as a source of Anne’s distress and also the justification to her bizarre obsession with rabbits, but it is, on the other hand, never part of Lady Malborough’s nor Abigail’s storyline. Whereas it makes sense to talk about it when evoking the Queen, because of the relationship between royal lineage and power, it is not assumed it should be part of every woman’s narrative. In psychoanalysis, namely Jacques Lacan’s writings on desire, men discover alterity, the other gender, by discovering what their mother misses: a penis. In this conception, womanhood and motherhood, therefore, become interwoven, and it has shaped many films and narratives in the 20th century. In The Favourite, the fact that the characters are not being pushed into stereotypes, the virgin-whore dichotomy, the mother, the girl-next-door, the bitch or the bimbo, pretty but dumb, means that they can exist beyond one-dimensional stereotypes that serve a story or men characters. They can surprise us with their decisions, in their determination, or their weakness.
With age, I find myself craving for real characters, perhaps more than for good stories - characters that make me uncomfortable because I do not know where they stand, the way real people are hard to fathom. Good stories often put the character at their service, and although they inspire us, they are not relatable and may feel boxed-in. But well-written characters sometimes make decisions which are inexplicable, and, admittedly, sometimes do a disservice to the storyline. Here you can tell the actresses are relishing playing parts that are in turns grotesque, carnal, petty and loving. Olivia Colman, who rightfully won an Oscar for her performance as Queen Anne, said in interviews it was completely liberating to have to let go of the imperative of feeling pretty. While Sarah and Abigail seem to be, in turn, manipulating Anne, in the final sequence Anne demonstrates she is, and has always been, holding power, over both her former and current favourite, by stripping them of their title or by ordering them around. In light of The Favourite, it is time that blockbusters follow suit and use a nuanced palette to convey women on screen who are not only victims, plotting revenge, and just standing by. I guess it means watching films without men.
Words by Margaux Portron