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A movie about the love life of a British monarch, released during the last six weeks of the calendar year, directed by an Oscar-nominated screenwriter who also has a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee to his credit, starring in the three roles a trio of actors who have between them two Oscars (out of three nominations), three Golden Globes (out of seven nominations), three BAFTA awards (out of nine nominations), and a Volpi Cup for Best Actress from the Venice Film Festival*; it's hard to claim with a straight face that The Favourite isn't Oscarbait. And yet it is equally hard to look at the absolutely fucking delirious fact of the film and square that with any of the prim, respectable tosh evoked by that phrase. This is a balls-out, batshit movie, enormously funny and enormously nasty, as much an act of war on the viewer as an invitation for us to delight in watching the brutal machinations of some very cunning and very witty sociopaths.

The film is the third feature made in English by Yorgos Lanthimos, who at this point has quite a remarkable portfolio, though he'll always be linked in my mind first and foremost with the profoundly grotesque 2009 film Dogtooth. It's the first time he's not taking a screenwriting credit; the script is instead credited to Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, but Lanthimos has fully made it his own. We have here the same gleeful flaunting of propriety, the same caustic assumption that every human is a cruel dirtbag (very much including the ones we sympathise with and the ones who are only ever victimised by other humans). We even have similar experiments in using deliberately unpleasant cinematography to keep the viewer feeling disoriented and queasy that made The Killing of a Sacred Deer such an aggressive fun time at the movies in 2017. This is all tempered a little bit - The Favourite is easily the most conventionally enjoyable and funny film Lanthimos has made since his big international breakthrough - but the very fact that it doesn't announce itself as a cold-blooded art film as openly as the director's previous work means that the cold-bloodedness, when it sneaks in, hits a lot harder for it.

The film, a blatantly inaccurate history that correctly decides that using deranged passions and modern dialogue to create a particular emotional state in the audience matters more than boring things like biographical fidelity, takes place near the end of the first decade of the 17th Century, in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who has just overseen the formation of a United Kingdom of Great Britain. That matters so little to the movie that it doesn't even bother to bring it up. Rather, the film's main political background is the war between Britain and France that was part of the pan-European conflict around the succession to the throne of the Spanish Empire. The details of that don't matter, either. Really, we only need to know a couple of things: Anne is a very nice lady who has nothing resembling the emotional stamina to be queen, and she has allowed herself to be controlled by a pro-war faction led by Lord High Treasurer Sidney Godolphin (James Smith), and the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, John Churchill (Mark Gatiss) and his wife Sarah (Rachel Weisz). The most important of these by far is Sarah, the queen's chief confidante and, as we learn before too very long, her lover. All would be well, with the queen being contentedly gulled by Sarah on behalf of her party, except for two things: less importantly, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), leader of the opposition and a gifted politician, has dedicated himself to outmaneuvering Godolphin. More importantly, Sarah's destitute cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) has come looking for any job, and with her kindness immediately impresses the queen so much that a romantic triangle forms, though how much of this is about sexual ardor and how much is that Sarah and Abigail are both schemers willing to do anything to achieve the maximum amount of power and influence available to them, even if it means ruthlessly manipulating a lovestruck, perpetually unwell woman.

Really, all of the politicking and history is just how The Favourite gets in the door. What the film is going after is to be a black comedy of manners in which we watch all of the ways that people emotionally manipulate their lovers, to get power, influence, or just a warm place to sleep at night. In its greatly caustic humor at the expense of sincere love, the film recalls 2015's The Lobster, Lanthimos's reigning masterpiece, though in a way The Favourite plays an even sicker set of tricks on us than that film did. The devilish thing that happens here is that all three characters end up having extremely well-rounded arcs, all of them emerging as rich, sympathetic figures. After the film has promised us a snarky, hip, edgy travesty of fusty old costume dramas, for it to make us feel extremely bad for how these three women, all of them complicated humans with impressively detailed narrative arcs, make each other suffer is quite a nasty shock. In the best way possible, you understand.

Getting to those arcs means navigating one of 2018's funniest comedies, though it has a profoundly mean sense of humor. The film is a slurry of anachronisms and florid vulgarity - not since In the Loop has a film deployed so many "fucks" while still making each and every one of them feel like it was placed with perfectly engineered precision - and much of its running time involves Weisz hurling the most breathtakingly poetic insults while Colman looks befuddled and Stone looks pissed. This is, in a sense, a very shallow pleasure, but The Favourite is executed with such impeccable craftsmanship devoted to perfect comic timing that it's hard to fault the movie. Just the way that editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis parcels out Stone's reaction shots is pure cinematic art, even if it is basically just setting up a bunch of well-timed jokes.

The bellicose wit isn't the film's only pleasure. Befitting its genre and setting, the film has excellent costume design by the legendary Sandy Powell, eschewing strict realism for something more expressive of the tensions between the characters, the confinement of the sad Queen Anne, and Abigail's increasingly forthright sophistication about how the court works. Any time that a substantial portion of a film's character work can be done strictly through the costuming, that film is up to something special, and it's no slight to the three outstanding leads (and the equally outstanding Nicholas Hoult, who really shouldn't be as overlooked as he has been this awards season) to point out that they are sometimes literally being upstaged by their outfits.

Another major expressive element in the film is the freakish, deliberately ugly cinematography by Robbie Ryan, a specialist in beautiful poetic realism who is here working in full support of Lanthimos's more grotesque visions. Two things define the camerawork in this movie: extremely wide-angle lenses, warping space so much that even the word "fish-eye" seems insufficient, and robotically precise pans that convert rooms into geometrical objects. The latter replicates the icy formality of court life; the former, rather more evocatively, suggests the hideous distortions required simply to successfully inhabit this environment, let alone thrive in it. The film looks gross as hell, and in so doing becomes one of 2018's most exquisitely-shot films; it's the most special thing of all when a film's shooting style is so outrageous and powerful that it triggers a visceral physical reaction, and Lanthimos has somehow done it twice in a row. The disorienting wrongness of those fish-eye pans does more than just about any other aspect of The Favourite to plunge right into the stressful, calculated world of the royal court, turning all of the jokes into savage barking bitterness, and the character arcs into heartbreaking tragedies of helpless fatalism. It's hilarious, and it's moving, but it's both of those things in a disturbing, disquieting way. Anyway, it's a hell of a movie, and the success it's met with both at the box office and with awards-granting bodies has done a great deal to make me feel extremely good about the state of moviegoing culture in 2018.

*Not including the citations they've received for this very film.