In The Favourite, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) stuffs a piece of cake into her face, then promptly vomits it back into a bucket. Despite this setback, she continues to eat it. Her favorite, childhood friend and lover Sarah (Rachel Weisz), is not afraid to point out that the Queen of England is stupid for doing this. This darkly funny scene isn’t something that would normally be found in a royal drama. Movies of this genre are known for being stately, nearly devoid of humor and full of long monologues.
At its core, The Favourite feels modern. The cold ambition and greed are relatable in our time. Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) focuses on a different aspect of royalty, but it feels accessible in the same way. Coppola took one of history’s most absurd queens (played by Kirsten Dunst) and made her seem like a real, flawed human while also making fun of the actions that led to her downfall. Marie Antoinette was the royal drama that paved the way for Favourite director Yorgos Lanthimos dark comedy of manners.
There are a lot of rituals, items of clothing, and ways of thinking in history that just don’t make sense now. In many period dramas, the audience is expected to suspend their disbelief and just go with it. Coppola doesn’t do that, which paved the way for Lanthimos to ignore this genre trope as well. Both directors lean into the absurdity and sometimes even the grotesqueness of old royalty. In Marie Antoinette, Coppola emphasizes how ridiculous the rituals were at Versailles. During Antoinette’s first morning in France, she stands naked and shivering, waiting to be dressed by the highest ranking woman in the room. Unfortunately, high-ranking women can stroll in and interrupt the routine. If that wasn’t enough, her sister-in-law takes a long time to pull off her gloves. “This is ridiculous!” Antoinette says.
Lanthimos doesn’t focus on the routines of the monarchy as much, though there is a great scene showing courtiers throwing fruit at a naked man, which brings to mind some of Marie Antoinette’s hard-partying friends. Versailles was notorious for insane rules as King Louis IV thought protocols would keep the gentry distracted. The most ridiculous figure in The Favourite is Queen Anne. She’s like a petulant child who needs to be simultaneously bossed around and soothed. “Did you just look at me? Did you?” Anne bellows at a poor servant boy. “Look at me. Look at me! How dare you?!” Anne seems unhinged, and that’s why the people around her believe they can control her. The Favourite shows how crazy it would be to have to move your entire life around someone else’s mood.
Both movies treat their subject matter irreverently. Instead of orchestral music, Marie Antoinette incorporates rock ’n’ roll and modern pop hits into the soundtrack. Coppola very famously layered “I Want Candy” over one of Antoinette’s shopping spree montages. The Favourite uses dry one-liners and physical humor, as when Abigail (Emma Stone) is pushed unceremoniously into a ditch by Harley (Nicholas Hoult) after she refuses to give him inside information about Queen Anne’s policy decisions.
But despite ridiculing Marie Antoinette, Coppola makes the argument that the audience should feel a little sorry for her. Antoinette was stripped of her Austrian identity as she stepped into France, and was alone in a place where the courtiers openly mocked her. After she became Queen, she retreated into her own palace, the Petit Trianon, because she felt safe there away from all the pomp and ceremony. In the last third of the movie, one of her children dies. Yes, she should not have spent an ungodly amount of money while her subjects were starving, but she was ultimately a silly girl who wasn’t taught any better. When the mob is outside Versailles, Antoinette is quiet and tearful. She goes to the balcony to see the mob, and even lays her head down, like she would on a scaffold, which silences them. The Queen knows her fate. Coppola constructed a complex character when she could have just had Antoinette say, “Let them eat cake!” and cruelly laughed as she walked by dying peasants. Some critics didn’t believe that the French queen should have gotten such a sympathetic portrayal. Antoinette was flawed and that wasn’t something Coppola shied away from, which was something filmmakers still, unfortunately, struggle with when putting female characters onscreen.
Lanthimos takes a page out of Coppola’s book. He makes all three of his female leads three-dimensional. He handles Queen Anne’s backstory especially well. Queen Anne is clearly fragile. She’s constantly bedridden due to her very painful gout and weak stomach. Her physical ailments occupy most of her time, and when she isn’t dwelling on that, she’s caring for her 17 rabbits. They just aren’t any pets though. They’re named after the 17 children she lost to miscarriage, stillbirth, or illness. The tragedy of that is nearly unfathomable. The rabbits mean a lot to her, which is why it’s so disturbing when Sarah doesn’t respect them. The Favourite doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable and awful realities that these characters face, but that doesn’t mean the three leads are good people. They’re difficult to root for and very fun to watch.
The Favourite took tropes and concepts that Marie Antoinette introduced. Lanthimos elevated everything to insane levels and dug deeper into the characters than Coppola originally did. The Favourite is probably going to be more successful during awards season than Marie Antoinette was, but modern films about monarchies and history really owe a lot to the irreverent Marie Antoinette.