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Triumvirate: To Know Somebody In and Out

Triumvirate is a monthly installment documenting the best of what I’m reading, listening to, and watching. Each installment will seek to find or create correspondence between three works of art with which I’ve engaged during a given month.

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The Favourite

Directed by my favorite filmmaker, Yorgos Lanthimos, this film is his most conventional to date—which says a lot, because it is still pretty wild. His last two films, written as well as directed by him, were deemed a little too off-center by some critics, though I’m convinced that anyone worth their salt would agree that The Lobster is one of the best films ever made. The fact that The Favourite found its way to a much broader audience may have to do largely with the fact that it wasn’t written by Lanthimos, and therefore steers clear of the stilted language that is a hallmark of his earlier films—a stylistic choice that mainstream audiences perhaps find distracting or strange, but which is integral to what his films are exploring and what makes them so hilariously poignant.

Its appeal to mainstream audiences aside, The Favourite is still Lanthimos through and through, all the way from the sharp, witty dialogue to the visuals, which, while necessarily different from earlier projects due to the fact that it’s a period piece, are remarkably similar in the way shots linger long enough for things to get, well, weird. There’s one shot of Olivia Colman as Queen Anne stumbling down a hall in fear and suspicion and pain, yelling at everyone around her, by turns childlike and haunting, and it goes on so long that you begin to wonder why no one stops her, why does no one stop her, when will this end, and when finally Abigail (played by Emma Stone) does come and wheel her away, you realize you’ve been holding your breath the whole time and crying without even realizing it.

I think what I’ve come to appreciate most about Lanthimos’s films is that they are able to depict the absolutely bizarre parts of relationships that no one ever talks about (I’m thinking of the awkward bedroom scenes between Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and the unforgettable last scene of The Favourite), the weird kinks and habits and intimacy that Hollywood glosses over. And even when those things are sexual and/or violent, I never feel like they are being exploited.

I loved the triumvirate (!!!) of brilliant actresses: Olivia Colman has been on my radar since Broadchurch and really shines as the vulnerable and volatile Queen Anne; Rachel Weisz is an actress I’ve always admired who has never shied away from complex, fascinating roles, and playing the role of Sarah, the Queen’s lover and confidant, she does not disappoint; and it was nice to see Emma Stone—whose lovably awkward humor and deft acting chops have, in my opinion, been lauded most for the wrong films (The Help, La-La Land)—in a role that takes full advantage of her range.

Are We There

Are We There is Sharon Van Etten’s fourth studio album, and my first of hers with which I’ve spent any time. I spent the first two weeks of January listening to a single song—”I Love You but I’m Lost”—from the album on repeat and staring at the sky/ceiling wondering if I’ve loved any single song this much since Fiona Apple’s “Left Alone.” Since then I’ve expanded into listening to the whole album on repeat; after “I Love You but I’m Lost,” there are no clear favorites because the rest of the album is so solid.

Thinking of this album in relation to The Favourite, I can’t help but gravitate to the album’s concerns surrounding intimacy: in “I Love You but I’m Lost” Van Etten sings, “Disappointed in a lover because they're the only way/To know somebody in and out, after a while it's a real challenge/Come in here and be yourself again/I love you, but I'm not somebody who takes shots/See me after I recoil/I'm better than I know/There is room to grow.” Those are the lyrics that sink me every time, and it occurs to me that this song could literally be the soundtrack to The Favourite—their concerns are that similar. Or rather—what I’m being drawn to in each of them is reflecting my concerns back to me: can you ever really know someone? Even—or rather especially—in an intimate way; after all, the higher the stakes, the more someone matters to us, the more likely we are to lie to them—and ourselves—to keep them from the disappointment of seeing us as we truly are. True intimacy is the unmasking of self and yet, ironically, desire for intimacy often propels us in the exact opposite direction.

Her Body and Other Parties

In her debut collection of short stories, Carmen Maria Machado reimagines everything from contemporary folklore to Law & Order: SVU in ways that are psychologically wrought, deeply feminist in their concerns, and urgently real. I loved each of the stories in this collection but “Especially Heinous” and “Difficult at Parties” were particularly haunting—both dealing with the emotional aftermath of sexual violence, and the voicelessness that particular violence elicits in its victims—a voicelessness this writer seeks to give voice to, and does so in devastating and breathtaking ways.

One of the things I think Machado does most beautifully is show the way intimacy between loved ones is stretched and pulled in the wake of one party experiencing sexual violence. In “Especially Heinous” a man, Stabler, violates his wife’s trust by going behind her back to find out the truth about an experience she’d had many years prior, thereby forcing her to relive that trauma and open that wound to him. “‘Why did you look it up?’ Stabler’s wife asks. ‘Why? All I wanted was to bury it. I want it to be hidden. Why did you do it? Why?’ She cries. She pummels her fists into a giant, overstuffed throw pillow. She begins to walk from one end of the room to the other, holding her arms so tightly to her torso that Stabler is reminded of a man who once came into the precinct, covered in blood. He held his arms like this, too, and when he let them drop, his wounded abdomen opened up and his stomach and intestines peeked out, as if they were ready to be born.”

Later, after days or weeks of silence, we see the other side of this fallout, the resiliency of intimacy: “After the children are asleep, Stabler sits next to his wife, who is cocooned under the blankets of their bed. Even her face is swaddled. Stabler gently pokes at the opening in the comforter, and soon the tip of her nose is revealed, a heart of skin around her eyes. She is crying. ‘I love you,’ she says. ‘I do. I am so angry with you. But I do love you.’ Stabler takes her into his arms, her whole cloth burrito self, and rocks her in his arms, whispering sorry sorry into her ear. After he turns out the light, she asks him to cover her face again. He lays the tucked bits back over her, lightly.”

Machado allows love and violence to coexist on the page in a way that feels very real to me; although we wish to believe we are acting from love when it comes to our most intimate relationships, it’s true that it can be difficult to identify where certain impulses are coming from. Stabler thinks he is acting out of love when he goes looking for the truth about what happened to his wife, but perhaps he is also operating from a place of hurt—why didn’t his wife trust him enough to tell him about what happened? He wants her to trust him with her most vulnerable secrets, but in his desire for intimacy he unintentionally hurts her and makes her trust him less. And what about her desire? She wants not to be seen in this way, for this thing that she didn’t choose. She wants a mask, she wants to hide the thing that she didn’t choose for herself, she wants to choose how she is seen by her husband—as not-a-victim—but intimacy requires letting go of trying to control the way the other sees you. Stabler and his wife love each other and desire connection, but ironically the moment that is most intimate for them is when he “lays the tucked bits back over her, lightly.” In symbolically replacing her mask, he is respecting her desires and building a bridge toward mutual trust.

Darla Mottram