Few are so beholden to normalcy as the provocateur. Whether satirically or advantageously, the transgressor fanatically attests to the strength of a moral system; tracing its limitations, feigning straining at a boundary too lightly crossed. This predicament describes writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose films depict doomed and derided individuals, at odds with their moral environment, only to revel in their gradual unmaking as a matter of course. These fables are often marked as tragic; or somewhat conflictingly, as tragi-comic, owing to a spirit of repetitive frivolity amid rote ultraviolence; and the vexed relationship of these contrary attunements plays to the director’s special strengths. In each case, the arbitrary strangeness of the film world’s moral system plays upon the empty structure of tragedy, whose subjects contravene the order of things and must accept the repercussions, especially where it could not have been otherwise.
Tragedy is a lawful genre, staging consequence. But in each of these films, the law appears implausible, capricious; some bizarre contrivance thwarts identification with the order according to which fate is meted out to a hapless cast. This places the audience, a moral chorus, at considerable odds with the action, even producing a timely mutation of the tragedy – which descends into horror or dystopia where the law has ceased to function as a cause or explanation, and resolves into comedy where law enjoys consensus.
Power and Sacrifice
With these rudimentary definitions in mind, one might ask after the meaning of tragedy for Lanthimos, whose work routinely depicts the fortunes of those who transgress constraining circumstances, only to relish the sumptuous visualisation of their brutal reprimand. While his most recent feature, The Favourite (2018), has even been heralded as a breakthrough in queer representation for its historical depiction of lesbian sexuality, one might inquire as to whether the constrictingly Oedipal algebra of its courtly drama isn’t as fatally normative as any romantic comedy in outcome. But before coming to this material, it may be helpful to consider the moral and visual economy of the breakthrough films preceding.
In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos’ 2017 rewriting of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, a child seeks recompense for his father’s death at the hands of a surgeon, infiltrating the doctor’s family in order to extort a sacrifice. A tit-for-tat inventorist of the bourgeois household, this avenging heir derives his sense of justice from his assigned role in a miniature society. Here, as throughout classical tragedy, the dead and their ambassadors accuse the living of hypocrisy, and this revenge against Hippocratic decorum broadcasts the immutable brutality of sacrificial custom to custodial rites of medical bureaucracy. Here the particularity of the son’s demand, and his indifference toward the surrogate by which it is to be fulfilled, constitutes the tragic law.
As importantly, the filmic inexorable concerns a viewer’s closeness to an image in which they are powerless to intervene; and Lanthimos conveys the pathos of tragedy to a distinctly photographic predicament. Lanthimos specialises in highly stylised spectacles of suffering, but the purgative effect of such piteousness on the viewer is typically thwarted by a penchant for sadistic slapstick. In this respect, while borrowing an antique structure of unbearable consequence, Lanthimos’ films tend toward physical comedy – quick shock and cheap relief.
This ambiguity describes The Lobster (2015), a stinging end-historical satire of the couple form. Here Lanthimos adopts a standard dystopian procedure – literalism as allegory – to depict a totalitarian civility based on compulsory coupledom, supposing a society in which only the partnered are permitted to live. The initial setting of the film is a last-ditch singles resort, where those unable to pair off within their allotted stay are transformed into an animal of their choosing. Without the symbolic intercession of love, these candidates lose the social altogether. This becoming-animal extends a second-order phallic logic of children, that “girls are cats and boys are dogs,” unto a fantastic conclusion – personalising an imputed or discovered difference. In Lanthimos’ afterlife-on-earth, there are as many species of loneliness as there are one-time subjects, and even this eventual metempsychosis is secured only by the projection of others, who tend to their uncoupled and converted relatives as companion animals in a sexual hereafter-on-earth.
This bizarre conceit calls to mind not only the rigorously speciated life-worlds posited by biologist Jakob von Uexküll, but a surprising aside from the seminar of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan who, speaking of animal sensation, asserts that “the imaginary is surely the guide to life for the whole animal domain.”1 In the case of human beings, this realm of essentially continuous experience is “reanimated” by the symbolic, which places us in a legal or grammatical relation to one another. Moreover, this initiation into difference requires that one can never realise one’s natural aims as such, nor inhabit this speculative state of contentment.
For the desperate singles of The Lobster, becoming-animal provides relief from the vicissitudes of the symbolic, but there are other options too: beyond the property of the resort, one learns, lives a society of escapees, sworn to sexlessness. This escaped sect of “loners” refuses the extortions of the couple form, only in favour of their own brand of guerrilla uniformity. This mandated equality either refuses or perfects the fantasy of ideal complementary sought by the couple form, symbolised as so many symmetrical arrangements of utterly impersonal material. Inside the resort, official matchmakers look for superficial traits in common, including injuries and physical blemishes, such that one desperate suitor smashes himself in the face so as to be paired with a woman who experiences chronic nosebleeds.
This credulity of the signifier, which sees bodily issues as properly inseparable from an afflicted subject, condenses the pursuit of sexual rapport into so many visual predicaments. In this cruelly exaggerated world, all love is unrequited by measure of physical separateness, and only a symbol can intervene. Ultimately, Lanthimos depicts the difficulty of matching one’s desire to one’s own symbols, let alone those of another, which are presumed to meaningfully coincide. Herein consists the tragedy; and in the end, our hero must decide whether to blind himself in order to match attributes with his beloved. Needless to say, he hesitates before the task.
As glimpsed above, each of Lanthimos’ films sets forth – to caustically interrogate – the social standards of a claustrophobically closed world. Lives are made and unmade; roles are fatally affirmed upon transgression; fate mocks freedom and normalcy prevails. These characteristics broadly describe The Favourite, set in the twilight of the English restoration and following the fictionalised antics of historical actors; and perhaps his trademark fatalism is even exacerbated by the distantly foreclosed actuality of the subject matter. But once again, The Favourite is far from a familiar tragedy. Rather, after the fashion of the early 18th century, Lanthimos directs a ribald comedy, revelling in a specular grotesquery that inhibits, and even parodies, catharsis.
Comedy, Lacan suggests, consists in consummation – in the enjoyment of, rather than opposition to, the signifier. In this sense, comedy could be described as a difference of attunement to de facto tragic circumstance. But whatever ameliorative function this identification serves for a subject is limited by the occasion itself. Human professions enter the theatre as symbols, Lacan says; each vocation representing “functions from which the subject finds himself alienated.”2
In comedy, then, a constitutive contradiction no longer transpires between the symbolic and the real, but between two equally ill-aligned symbols. Where tragedy concerns exchange, comedy stops at swapping. Players change stations, producing an effect of relative truth; and the misalignment of signifiers with persons is not so much revealed as revelled in. Comedy, no less passionate than tragedy, appears perverse by definition, displacing every sign only to rediscover it later, like a self-administered shell game. This, Lacan continues, adapts a structure of masochism, which supposes the possibility of a pleasurable separation of oneself from one’s sign. Comedy, Lacan declares, “is not the comical.” One might suggest that the genre serves to console its audience that the signifier exists only to be given, withheld, mocked at, traded, and degraded. These formal characteristics suggest a close relationship between comedy and transferential rites of love; which co-theory structures The Favourite at its basis.
The Favourite follows the political and erotic triangulations of three historical personages: Anne Stuart, Queen of Great Britain; Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough; and Abigail Hill, a disinherited cousin who arrives to Queen Anne’s court to beseech her relative for work. From this triad, Lanthimos extrapolates an original narrative of subterfuge, cruelty, and sexual blackmail, set against the backdrop of a divided parliament. Wildly extrapolated from historical reports of Queen Anne’s suggestibility and the close friendship of both Abigail and Sarah, the film’s plot rapidly departs from political biography to paint a pathological – otherwise ahistorical – portrait of royalty. In this respect, as a treatise on women’s political and sexual power, The Favourite takes a cynical view of just how little any institution is subject to change.
The childish dependency of Queen Anne, who governs broodingly above a gouty leg, contrasts the wilful designs of the Lady Marlborough, whose husband, John Churchill, is at war with France, upholding England’s stake in the War of the Spanish Succession. Against the backdrop of this continental interest, Whigs and Tories spar over a proposal to raise land taxes for the war, seeking the Queen’s ear by creative means. This furnishes the plot its first significant tension, as the Lady Marlborough emphatically demands the tax increase, citing her husband’s military operation, while parliamentarian Robert Harley, cautioning a landowner’s revolt, opposes it as fiercely, but with fewer resources at his command than the Queen’s favoured advisor.
Lanthimos surely condescends to women’s government, depicting a political culture of the boudoir, though it isn’t always clear which tempestuous femininity the film derides. Effete and ineffectual statesmen contrast powerful women, every bit as ruthless in their domestic affairs as in politics – a symbolic inversion meant to signify decadence, where the extravagance of men’s costume contrasts the relatively unadorned faces of women’s political power. As in many period pieces, two opulent visual regimes interact to uncanny effect; for the lavish detail and design of the period costume appears frightfully garish and stagey on screen. This alienation effect permits the pageantry of wealth to manifest grotesquely before a viewer’s eyes. “Your mascara is running,” Lady Marlborough taunts a male foe in parliament. There is a sneering presentism about Lanthimos’ historical scenery, which expects its viewer to regard the customs depicted as intrinsically ridiculous in retrospect. In this respect, the film manages a sexist visual regime whilst superficially swapping its operators, however critically.
The Lady Marlborough initially appears both counsellor and confidante to the Queen, but this pact of love and management cannot remain exclusive. When Lady Marlborough’s distant cousin Abigail arrives, beseeching her relation for employment, she is promptly put to work ‘downstairs’ amid the kitchen staff. The backdrop of domestic labour recedes, however, as Abigail sets her sights on regaining her class position by emotional subterfuge. Her quick success not only illustrates the immaterial fortunes of entitlement, but inverts and satirises the morality of the Cinderella story, which at this point the film closely resembles: Abigail’s social gains have less to do with her intrinsic virtue than with a keen ambition, and she soon ingratiates herself to the Queen, crowding her cousin’s emotional monopoly.
This proximity makes Abigail susceptible to the extortions of Harley, who enlists her as a spy; in which capacity she discovers the Lady Marlborough and Queen Anne as lovers. Consequently, Abigail resolves to secure the Queen’s favour by concerted flirtation. “If I were a man I would ravish you,” she says to the Queen, all-too-knowing of what little obstacle this difference poses to her offer. In short order, Abigail seduces Anne herself, and is discovered by her cousin and competition. As jealousies escalate, the two continue to represent opposing stakes in the war, as each woman bends the Queen’s ear to her own purposes. As Lady Marlborough’s husband leads the charge against France, his fortune depends upon the diversion of funds from home; whereas Abigail requires the mercenary favour of Harley, intending to restore her rank by marrying within the court.
Once again, the film’s obvious contempt for the domestic, depicted as a space of frivolous backbiting, appears as so many satirical remarks on the effeminacy of the English political class. As a result, sexual intrigue doesn’t play out as a proxy war; rather, the parliamentary stalemate euphemises this triangulation, and the indecision of the Queen herself before her suitors. “Favour is a breeze that shifts direction all the time,” Lady Marlborough threatens, and her appetitive monarch governs breezily.
The Cruelty of Animals
This isn’t to say that the film’s action transpires in a political vacuum: however quietly, discussion glances upon riots in Leeds and colonial holdings abroad, both sideways and dismissively. But the political is held at bay, unable to manifest within the courtly interior. Instead of straightforwardly depicting the tumultuous politics of the period, Lanthimos subjects this material to a series of metaphorical displacements, representing the psychological distance and factual proximity of callous royals to their subjects at once.
Most blatantly, this underwrites countless scenes of animal cruelty; a hallmark of Lanthimos’ films and a sign of his dismal worldview. After their mutual affair is discovered, the two cousins trade barbs over shooting; and when Abigail punctuates her imperious mood with a kill, the bird’s blood splatters the Lady Montgomery’s face. More than a show of prowess, this wishfully visceral display of equivalential violence says a great deal about the metaphoricity of aristocratic rule in general, and the cruel remove at which life-rending decisions are typically made.
This cosmetic contempt implicates a far more disposable and less symbolically rife menagerie than the Queen’s own pet rabbits, numbering 17 in all; one for each of her previous miscarriages. Perhaps heavy-handedly, these creatures displace both her political subjects and absent children at once. Abigail wins the Queen’s esteem by asking after them by name, whereas the Lady Marlborough can barely conceal her disgust at their presence in the room. This discrepancy in reception indexes each of the cousin’s chemistry with the Queen. When the Lady Marlborough attends, the rabbits appear caged, out of sight; and when Abigail is in the room, they are set free about the bedroom floor, to play and huddle at the couple’s feet.
This domestic beneficence, visited upon a proxy family, is the nearest that Queen Anne comes to involvement in the affairs of the kingdom. When in a moment of weakened resolve the Queen suggests a survey of popular opinion, Lady Marlborough bristles at the thought: the people must be led, she spits, they do not lead. Her remote contempt for those living closer to the land mirrors her shudder of disgust before the rabbits, tightening the film’s suggested pact between the privations of intimate jealousy and the appropriations of tyrannical rule.
Be My Body
This is only one of several obvious visual allegories that drive the film. A hackneyed symmetry – of dark haired and fairer rivals, trading characterological traits and swapping social caste – offers a clear commentary on mercenary parliamentarism, the stakes of which are represented by contrasting costumes, too. Abigail enters the picture as mere “scullery scraps” and in short order comes to modify the fortune of a nation. The Lady Marlborough is gifted a sprawling manor home in the opening scene, but her social stability and fealty to country is nothing but changeable.
From this inauspicious start, one expects an upstairs-downstairs plot; but the downstairs quickly falls away as these relative stations are mapped onto the political and erotic competition of the Lady Marlborough and her cousin Abigail. In this cordoned off equivalent, upstairs and downstairs are mapped onto the body of the sovereign, whose executive function is increasingly powerless before scenes of bodily revolt, from paralysis to bowel evacuations and other intimate concerns. Lady Marlborough is Groom of the Stole and Keeper of the Privy Purse at once; the management and disposal of sovereign wealth and a sovereign’s waste intimately conjoined in this tellingly undivided labour.
Physical malfunctions are a returning obsession of Lanthimos, and The Favourite characteristically insults any presumption of bodily sovereignty. These visualisations directly connect to past work: in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the grieving interloper Martin paralyses his quarry’s children by super-sympathetic means; and The Lobster centres on metempsychotic devolution as uncoupled souls pass from one animal body to another. The apparent ableism of this visual vocabulary is but one symptom of a masculine obsession with solidity, spectacular integrity, unchangeability, and ultimately, castration – a credulity that Lanthimos, appropriately, both mocks and maintains.
In her work on sexuality and aging, theorist Jane Gallop maps “the classic temporality of the phallus,” which always appears as a former possession or a future loss, onto the inevitable advent of disability over the course of life.3 Notably, Gallop compares the classic temporality of castration to the structure of “general tragedy,” invoking the inexorability and finality of physical decline. While Gallop recommends a non-normative conception of sexuality, suitable to changing expressions of embodiment with time, this nonetheless contrasts a phallic order concerned with imaginary physical prowess. This desirous simplicity saturates the field of vision, where the phallus, according to Jacqueline Rose, “indicates the reduction of difference to an instance of visible perception, a seeming value.”4
This seeming, for the purposes of seeing, is precisely what Lacan reveals as unreliable, Rose explains – the phallus is a presence which stands for an absence at once. Lanthimos, conversely, appears to regard the phallus as inconstant rather than illusory; and his films present a crudely sequential account of castration as actually transpiring for individuals fatally endowed. This is the simple mechanism by which each of his films develops – as a unidirectional decline. Over the course of The Favourite, the Queen’s body gradually fails her, as she loses use of her legs and undergoes a partial paralysis, altering her features. Within the visual economy of the film, this vulnerability is a sign of, and request for, love, where Abigail and the Lady Marlborough continue to compete at her bedside. Furthermore, the Queen’s physical fits often appear to be provoked by music or dance, as though the body were stricken with unmediated physical jealousy on sight. Throughout, Queen Anne delegates matters of bodily primacy to her various intimates and functionaries, such that the betrayals of others appear to mirror her own physical limitations.
The Queen, coddled in love and in politics, is largely a cipher for the designs of others – a passive object of conniving projection. Her personal tragedy is to become aware of this only too late. The triangulation that ensues as both cousins attempt to woo their sovereign echoes the efforts of parliament, not only in the sense that each suitor stands for an opposite stake in the tax; but insofar as the formal neutrality of the beloved Queen underwrites an incestuous flirtation with the other suitor. The Queen’s position secures a formal pact, such that total enmity between competitors may nonetheless transpire in a state of deep agreement.
The Queen’s pliability and babyish demeanour is observed by all, and her power is a poor facade without the love and upkeep of her subjects. In a plausible satire of political reason, this necessary love is literalised as sex, in which initially mechanical enterprise Abigail presumes herself to excel. But Abigail appears to fall in something resembling love anyway; piteously, she appears to love herself as loving, a mandate by which she is eventually doomed to fail. At the same time, the Lady Marlborough only realises how little her political ambition may have come into their lovemaking when she no longer monopolises the Queen’s bed, or her ear. This is a biting send-up of the noble pretensions of the contemporary political class, who desire only to serve; and explicitly satirical of the plight of the functionary, where any moment’s “favourite” is but the courtly equivalent of middle management.
Put otherwise, the Queen assumes a childish position, relative to which her suitors take turns acting mother. Here some history is useful; for Lanthimos exaggerates the effects of their competition by omitting to mention Queen Anne’s husband, the King of Denmark, altogether. In his absence, the competitive binary represented by Abigail and Sarah comprises a straightforwardly Oedipal entanglement. At first, one might suggest that a Kleinian dialectic transpires between each woman and the Queen, whose body and bodily demands are a mirror to the favoured child. This self-replenishing allure not only makes the mother desirable to the child, but expresses her own desirous being, directed toward a needful recipient. (The Queen’s convulsions may be seen as a conversion of desire as circulated by this bodily economy.)
Rejection and comfort oscillate in Lady Marlborough’s demands upon the Queen; but this dynamic is further complicated when their affair is triangulated from without, by a figure without whom desire remains untested. This symbol of the mother’s desire is not a further sibling, a distinction one may credibly draw within a maternal body, but a fantastically outfitted Other. Over the course of The Favourite, then, one observes a sibling rivalry transform into a richly incestuous Oedipal drama, as each mother figure vies for the position of the father.
Furthermore, this competitive presence may be interiorised by the child, Lacan explains, such that “stigmata” of the father appear upon her body.5 Lacan, following Karen Horney, assigns such postural modifications to female homosexuality in particular, in a sweeping movement that connects comedies of identity and identification to phallic sexuality by way of an Oedipal diagram. This dialectic is set in motion by the libidinal value assigned an object by an individual in a one-to-one relation, such that when a third term appears distinctly, this attunement to the object becomes a relation of competition.
Horney, Lacan explains, focuses our attention on the moment of the Oedipus complex when desire has passed over to the Father, or the child’s rival, at which point love may be transformed into identification. This identification is facilitated by various insignia of the father which are themselves alienable or reproducible; a mannerism or a sonic trademark such as a cough could even suffice. As an ego-ideal is constructed around these signs, their meaning depends entirely upon the interest of their would-be recipient. In this, Lacan means to demonstrate the generality of phallic jouissance, and in so doing outlines the principle on which Lanthimos depicts love as a swapping or a mirroring of physical attributes, from nosebleeds to wardrobe to tics and locution.
A Letter Always Reaches its Destination
As Abigail ascends in favour and influence, the Lady Marlborough attempts to blackmail Queen Anne, threatening to surrender their own love letters to newspaperman Jonathan Swift. But in a moment of private sentimentality, she burns the letters herself – moments before Queen Anne banishes her from court. After a truce with France is secured, the Earl of Godolphin attempts to broker a reconciliation between Lady Marlborough and Queen Anne; but Abigail intercepts and destroys Lady Marlborough’s letter of reconciliation. Truly, a letter always reaches its destination; and these letters in particular needn’t see physical delivery because their content is elsewhere secured.
Only after Lady Marlborough has been sent away does Abigail, now Baroness, find herself without a moral antipode, and her callousness manifests outwardly. Queen Anne, writhing despondently in bed, witnesses Abigail crushing one of the rabbits under the heel of her shoe, releasing its life only at the last instant. This small act of enormous cruelty crystallises something for the Queen, who falls from her bed in fright. In the final moments of the film, Anne is photographed from below, her face half paralysed, as the frolicking rabbits are superimposed again and again, in exponential overlay to her distress.
This visual denouement condenses Lanthimos’ obsessive themes: animal cruelty, physical infirmity, body swapping, unrequited love. It’s awful enough – but is it tragic? Here as throughout the preceding filmography, characters do not develop awareness so much as they metamorphose, both by animal affinity and accidental disfiguration, unto essentially meaningless and private fates. The Favourite’s players appear splayed between the arbitrary cruelty of the social and the loneliness of individual desire.
Immediately, these films concern a specular impasse, having to do with the basis of identification in desire, and the sideways Oedipality of its social elaboration. Where the narrativity of this attachment is concerned, Lacan describes a kind of comedic misidentification, rather than the fated wilfulness one might associate with tragedy. Comedy, Lacan observes, succeeds tragedy. This isn’t to say that comedies of error have nothing in common with tragedies of confirmation; but unlike the tragic hero, the comic subject reconciles with the law, even in their downfall. (Heterosexuality, for example, is intrinsically comedic, as an ameliorative sequel to the developmental severance of Oedipus.)
In this respect, The Favourite is a compelling instance of Lanthimos’ incessantly pessimistic worldview—a non-comedy that considerably extends the themes of his recent anti-tragedies. (The consequentiality of family for The Killing of a Sacred Deer, for example, or the negotiable indifference of identity that drives The Lobster.) Deeply constrained by the normal, these films nonetheless lack a single transcendent figure by whom the law might enter into contradiction with itself. In each case, a social outcast may take noble action; but a choral contempt produces the eerie effect of sacrifice without catharsis.
This movement transpires as a series of staged symbolisations that, while sexual at their basis, remain social in destination, and Lanthimos’ major insight concerns the convertibility of these symbols within the constraints of visual economy. Yet Lanthimos simply exhausts this material, rallying normalcy with gruesome zeal for want of any other option. The Favourite, like its predecessors, is another tale of transformation in which nothing is transformed. Here too nihilism moralises, and something in the medium of film itself doubles this contradiction—between a lushly furnished field of vision and its lack of stable reference. As Lanthimos appears to stake his melancholy cleverness on this aesthetic impasse, he leaves the viewer painfully aware of just how much remains to be desired.
- Jacques Lacan, translated by Russell Grigg, The Psychoses: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book III (London and New York: Taylor & Francis, 2013), 9 ↩
- Ibid, 247 ↩
- Jane Gallop, Sexuality, Disability, and Aging: Queer Temporalities of the Phallus (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019) ↩
- Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London and New York: Verso Books, 2005), 66 ↩
- Lacan 2017, 277 ↩