We all carry within us fixations with certain ideas, things, and people that shape our tastes and who we are. These fixations can sometimes transform into obsessions. And while they are innocent most of the time, some obsessions have the power to take you by the hair and control your every thought and action, which can often lead to ruin.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite is one film garnering awards season buzz this year that perfectly demonstrates how obsessions develop and can result in catastrophe. The semi-true story centres on three women, two of whom are competing against one another to earn the affections of the third, thus becoming her “favourite.” Rivalry amongst women is one of the oldest narratives there is, and Lanthimos reminds us just how entertaining it can be in his darkly comedic film, full of catty remarks and viperous performances.
The Favourite is a retelling of the hot mess that was Queen Anne’s court. “How goes the kingdom?” Sarah asks her Queen and closest confidante, as though Sarah isn’t running the kingdom herself (and in reality, she was). Sarah is the original “favourite,” someone who has been in Anne’s life for as long as they both can remember. Sarah has no shame in showing the Queen some tough love, full of harsh truths and smothering grasps. But when Abigail, the new girl—who happens to be Sarah’s cousin—arrives, Sarah loses her tight grip on the court, Anne, and ultimately, herself, as the story soon becomes All About Abigail.
The Favourite has been compared to another tale of obsession, All About Eve, and rightfully so. Both see a woman attempting to usurp another whom they feel is superior, in order to achieve a certain role. Abigail wishes to earn the role of the Queen’s favourite, while Eve wishes to assume the role of Broadway’s favourite star.
Much like Lanthimos’s story beginning with Sarah on top, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s narrative begins with Margo on top; she’s Broadway’s most celebrated. Both Eve and Abigail are introduced as—to quote Margo—an innocent “lamb loose in our big stone jungle.” And both Margo and Sarah mistakenly take someone they regard as their inferior under their wing: Sarah takes Abigail on as her lady-in-waiting, while Margo takes on the starstruck Eve as her assistant. But it’s their powerful influence that shapes those lambs into the manipulative go-getters they become.
What’s most interesting are the similarities between Eve and Abigail in their desire to erase their past by making a new name for themselves (in Eve’s case, literally). Gertrude Slescynski changes her name to Eve Harrington in order to hide her falsehoods and erase the fact that she was paid to leave San Francisco after having an affair with her boss. Abigail, on the other hand, wishes to become a lady with a title like Sarah, so she marries rich in order to erase the fact that she is the daughter of a disgraced lord who gambled her family’s wealth (not to mention herself) away.
Both Eve and Abigail infiltrate their superior’s circle. Eve becomes friends with Margo’s friends and tries to get in bed with those most useful to her: Margo’s boyfriend, Bill, and playwright, Lloyd. Abigail does much the same. As she moves up in position, so do her relationships. She forms an interesting partnership of sorts with the political opposition and uses her spuriously sweet disposition to work her way up into the Queen’s good graces, and her bed.
“I must take control of my circumstance. I’m on my side, always. As it turns out, I’m capable of much unpleasantness,” Abigail says, as her life turns into a twisted game of manipulation and blackmail—and, through that, gets Sarah kicked out of not only the Queen’s bed but court itself (and eventually the country). Eve also stoops to manipulation to achieve what is stated at the beginning of All About Eve as her one wish and dream: to belong to the theatre. But while her achievement of taking Margo’s crown as the biggest Broadway star doesn’t result in borderline lethal means like those of Abigail and Sarah, it still has her snatching an award out of Margo’s hands.
Both stories end with Eve and Abigail naively believing that they have won. In the final scenes of All About Eve, Eve returns home from an awards ceremony—for which she was given the highest honour—to find a young and adoring fan waiting for her; just like the starstruck Eve at the beginning of the film. This young fan, Phoebe, pushes her way into Eve’s life much like Eve did with Margo. The film ends with Phoebe dawning the robe Eve wore at the ceremony and posing in front of a mirror holding her award as if it were her own. The audience is left with this image and its suggestion that the events of the film are about to be repeated.
Abigail’s story ends with a similar feeling of foreboding. Both films’ endings begin with each woman enjoying her success, but Abigail makes the mistake of letting her true nature show, as she begins to neglect Anne’s rabbits. In Sarah’s final conversation with her Queen, she states that Abigail doesn’t truly love Anne and that she is just using her for her own personal gain. Anne, it can be concluded, reflects on this as she begins to suspect Abigail’s true nature for herself as well as her role in ending her relationship with Sarah. As she gets out of bed, commanding Abigail to kneel and massage her legs, Anne grasps her hair tightly, holding her down as a reminder to her that she is still no more than the servant she always was.
Abigail and Eve’s games catch up with them, and in their desperation to reach the top, they drag Sarah and Margo through hell—and in the end, pass through it themselves, too.