Camp / Decadence / Film

Look At Me! How Dare You! Close Your Eyes!: Going Camping with Queen Anne and “The Favourite”

“Did you just look at me? Did you?…LOOK AT ME! How DARE you?! Close your eyes!” This head-spinning hysterical interchange, delivered to the silent suffering of a young servant, marks the moment I fell in love with Queen Anne in The Favourite. Played with maniacal glee by Olivia Colman, Queen Anne, with her angular streaks of black eye shadow, heart-shaped rings of smeared blush and growing furrowed frown, resembles a rabid raccoon or just someone who fell unconscious into a makeup palette. This “badger”-like face, as described by her lover and lady Sarah, otherwise known as Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) is paired with a fashionably exaggerated royal ensemble, which only heightens her breathtakingly startling sight. Silent, Queen Anne cuts an arresting image. However, this is rare, for the 18th century monarch’s screams come from a deep well of angst, spewing and shrieks at everyone, from revelers dancing to an orchestra playing to this poor belabored servant.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Queen Anne rivals the grand dames of classic Hollywood camp cinema. In fact, the Queen fits right into other pancake makeup spackled and shellacked divas such as Bette Davis’s ravaged Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? Nominated for ten Academy Awards tomorrow night, The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, has already won in my imagined Filthy Dreams category: Best Camp.

On the surface, The Favourite seems unlikely to be the campiest film of the year. A period psychosexual love (and ok, mostly power) triangle between Queen Anne, Sarah and the fallen woman/conniving social climber Abigail, played by Emma Stone, who comes to the Court to seek work as a servant after her family fell on hard times due to her father’s gambling debts, seems unlikely to rival the over-the-top excess of the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Just through sheer sequined jumpsuits alone. However, as Philip Core writes in Camp: The Lie That Tells The Truth, “CAMP is a form of historicism viewed histrionically.” And nobody is more histrionic than Queen Anne and her Court.

Now, I’ll admit that even though Bryan Singer is a known creep, I did still like Bohemian Rhapsody for its sheer ahistorical commitment to cheese. Why it was the best TV movie I’ve ever seen in the theater! But, it was more schmaltzy schlock than the essential art form that is camp. This doesn’t mean I still don’t perversely hope it wins at the Oscars so I can laugh at the Internets losing their collective minds over social media. Let’s spice this Sunday up! But, if Olivia Colman doesn’t acquire her Oscar, I’ll riot! Even though Lady Gaga considers herself queen of the queers, Queen Anne is the only queen I’ll recognize.

Much has already been made from various critics of The Favourite’s gender subversion, between the feminized men in Parliament, and the dominating and domineering women in the film. The men, particularly the Tories, are all dolled-up with powdered wigs and overly made-up faces, which inspires Lady Marlborough to quip in an argument about land taxes with Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), a Tory member: “Your mascara’s running. If you’d like to fix yourself, we can continue this later.” Like this line indicates, in Queen Anne’s Court, women wield the power behind the scenes, both political and sexual, while the men are rarely seen as sexual beings at all, only pawns to be manipulated by the women. This is observable in even minor sartorial juxtapositions. Whereas Lady Marlborough shoots pigeons in her dapper black-and-white hunting ensemble (Where do I get one?), the men flit around in their prim wardrobes since, “a man must look pretty.”

Less has been written about The Favourite’s engagement with camp. Admittedly, it isn’t just Queen Anne that emerges as the pinnacle of camp in the film. In fact, the entire opulent 18th century aesthetic relates to the origin of the term itself. According to Mark Booth’s “Campe-toi! On The Origins and Definitions of Camp,” the phrase “se camper,” the usage of which he traces to satirical playwright Molière, developed in relation to Louis XIV and Versailles. “Camp people,” he writes, “look back to Louis XIV and Versailles as a sort of camp Eden, a self-enclosed world devoted to divertissements, to dressing-up, showing off and scandal.”

It’s no mistake that this era of French lavishness ran concurrent with the one on view in The Favourite (the two are actually currently at war in the film). Under Queen Anne, decadence reigns supreme. Take, for example, one of the earliest scenes in the film in which members of Parliament race ducks through the palace. Lanthimos, with the fisheye shots he employs throughout the film denoting the claustrophobic nature of the narrative, portrays men biting into disgustingly juicy spreads of food and hollering in encouragement to the ducks. To ramp up the ridiculousness, he slows their actions, allowing for their shouts and eating to become both animalistic and completely revolting.

As this should suggest, while Versailles under the Sun King was pure refined luxuriousness, the English version, as depicted in The Favourite, is a bit more abject. This isn’t the macaron-strewn scenery of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Instead, the extravagance of The Favourite is fragile, poorly disguising its repulsive underbelly. Case in point: the Court is surrounded by literal shit, in which Abigail falls on her way to her post as a servant. “CAMP,” explains Philip Core, “is a disguise that fails.”

Of course, beyond the general excess of the Court itself, the power struggle between Abigail and Lady Marlborough over Queen Anne is a standard unadulterated camp set-up. Why, it’s basically like Feud: Monarchy Edition as Sarah and Abigail scam, scheme, sneak and even, poison their way into Queen Anne’s heart, and the utmost proximity to power. In “Campe-toi,” Mark Booth specifically describes Madame de la Fayette’s Versailles-based world of “prolonged adolescence, an interplay of appearance, pretense and deceit in the midst of which the greatest joy was ‘to note the effect of one’s beauty on others,’ where the greatest worry was keeping up with the latest fashion, and where love was always mixed with cynicism, and cynicism with love, auspicious circumstances for the ascendency of camp.” And the cynical love games between Abigail and Sarah certainly fit directly into this description.

More than Abigail and Sarah’s absolute determination to demean, outsmart and outlast one another, though, what makes The Favourite worthy of the camp canon is the multifaceted figure of Queen Anne. Grotesquely heroic and lovable, Queen Anne is, at once, tempestuous, torturous, tortured, repulsive, endearing, aggravating, aggressive, pathetic, intimidating, and intoxicating. In short, she is the epitome of the flawed diva trope. This doesn’t mean she isn’t sympathetic. She is, particularly in the scene in which Abigail discovers that Queen Anne’s seventeen beloved rabbits are meant to represent her seventeen pregnancies without a surviving child.

In How To Be Gay, David M. Halperin takes an extended look at just what is with gay men’s camp appreciation for Joan Crawford, citing both Crawford herself in Mildred Pierce and Faye Dunaway’s scenery-chewing version of the star in Mommie Dearest. He reflects, “Joan Crawford excelled in the portrayal of strong women who nonetheless fall victim, at least for a while to the potential horror and tragedy of normal family life. In the decades following Mildred Pierce, Crawford tried to capitalize on her success in that film, specializing in similar roles and making them her trademark, her own personal brand, defined by a signature combination of glamour and abjection (that is, extreme, degrading humiliation).”

Colman’s Queen Anne absolutely nails the abjection and extreme, degrading humiliation, but not so much the glamour bit as we’ve seen in her badger makeup. This isn’t the only time Anne excels at abjection. From eating cake until she pukes (with a quick-handed servant there to catch her spew in a probably priceless vessel) only to return to the eating to fake-fainting in front of Parliament in a fit of panic (“I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t go through with it”) to her eerie and deliciously painfully long, hair-tugging power trip that concludes the film, Queen Anne seems as if she is the historical precedence for the filthiest person alive. If Olivia Colman hadn’t perfected the role, Divine would have been a worthy stand-in.

As someone who would fit right into Pink Flamingos, Anne is much queerer than the gay men-adored camp divas as analyzed in Halperin’s book. Anne isn’t a figure meant to be adored by men, and in fact, Queen Anne doesn’t seem to have a care for men at all in the film, spending most of her time obsessing over Abigail and Sarah. She’s as near to a lesbian separatist monarch as possible. She even brushes off serious political discussions with Robert Harley by shoving her enlarged gout-ridden leg in his face and posing: “Do you like my stockings?”

In her article “Notes on Dyke Camp,” published in The Outline, Mikeaella Clements strives to define what she sees as specifically lesbian, or “dyke camp.” As she defines, dyke camp is “a movement directed, for the first time, not by the tastes of gay men but gay women: a specific brand of humor, manners, and sensibilities guided by lesbian identity.” Now, admittedly, I have my reservations about Clements’ notions of “dyke camp,” as explored in the article. First, this is nothing new–women have always been camps, and secondly, her examples make me hesitant. For example, Joan of Arc’s pageboy haircut isn’t really camp (though ironically, I do think that saying Joan of Arc is camp is camp).

However, this form of camp, set apart, from gay male identity does seem to relate to Queen Anne’s specific brand of queer female camp, in particular, the treatment of Queen Anne’s fanatical same-sex desire. “If camp is the love of the unnatural,” Clements says, “dyke camp is the love of the ultra-natural, of nature built up and reclaimed, of clothes that could be extensions of the body, of desire made obsessive, of lesbian gestures or mannerisms maximized by a thousand.” Desire made obsessive certainly sounds like Queen Anne. Her unabashed preoccupation with her sapphic love interests leads to manic exchanges with the objects of her affection. “Love has limits,” says Sarah. “It should not,” Queen Anne responds. This is essentially her romantic outlook. In another scene, she wraps herself around Sarah who snidely quips: “I’m not food. You can’t just eat and eat.” “Yet you are tasty and salty,” she whines, groveling, “If I grilled you, you’d make a delightful meal.” And then, there is possibly the campiest moment in which Queen Anne hisses, “I like it when she puts her tongue inside me,” referencing Abigail to a now jealous, jilted Sarah.

And yet, Anne’s relationship with both Sarah and Abigail isn’t played for laughs in the film–it’s more her monomaniacal infatuation, and the lengths she’ll go to express and preserve it that leads to some comical and occasionally cringe-inducing moments. “Camp doesn’t preach; it demeans,” says Halperin, “But it doesn’t demean some people at other people’s expense. It takes everyone down with it together.” And that’s exactly what happens in The Favourite. No character comes out looking like anything other than power hungry, despicable and ultimately, hilarious. However, for us viewers, the film seems to say, as the Michael Warner line goes, “Put a wig on before you judge.”

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