It was a gala opening night for the 56th New York Film Festival, a major annual cultural event of New York City, and the Festival (Sept. 28-October 14, 2018) got under way with the unusual film “The Favourite,” directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, with screenings at Alice Tully Hall and the Walter Reade Theater. Then it was off to a huge bash at the Tavern on the Green that started at 11 p.m.

Lanthimos was on hand for the occasion. Introduced at the screening that I attended by Dennis Lim, the Festival’s director of programming, Lanthimos, told the audience: “It’s a great thrill for our film to be shown as the opening night film.” The director is especially known for his “The Lobster.”

The after-party, as was the case at last year’s Festival, continued traditionally at the landmark Tavern on the Green in Central Park following a hiatus during the restaurant’s renovation. While it was closed the Festival parties were held at the Harvard Club. Given the pleasant weather, much of the socializing at this year’s party was in the Tavern’s large outdoor space, although indoor rooms were also packed. There were generous servings of hors d’oeuvres by waiters, and main dishes were at conveniently located buffets. Drinks offered were wine, bubbly and an assortment of coctails made with rum.

This year’s Festival has a slate of 30 new films from 22 various countries by a mix of directors. Chosen for the centerpiece was “Roma,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón, with the closing night selection “At Eternity’s Gate,” directed by Julian Schnabel. The Festival also includes many additional films under the categories “Spotlight on Documentaries,” “Revivals,” “Special Events,” “Retrospectives,” “Shorts” and “Projections,” the latter exploring new possibilities for cinema. A large corps of press and industry members were accredited for special screenings.

As for the opening night “The Favourite,” it is a film that further demonstrates director Lanthimos’s broad imagination. Here, with a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, he explores freely perceived bedroom escapades during the 18th century reign of Queen Anne between her and Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, and also between the queen and servant Abigail Hill.

Queen Anne ruled England, Scotland and Ireland from 1702 to 1707, and then, after Scotland and England were merged into Great Britain, she ruled from 1707-1714, when she died at the age of 49. Queen Anne suffered from gout and other illnesses, and she had a disastrous record of childbirths. There were some 17 pregnancies, including miscarriages and babies dying at birth or shortly afterward. Of five successful births, four children died before the age of two.

The queen is played by Olivia Colman and she is shown as clumsy, overweight and frequently wracked with pain, with a badly swollen leg, and having great difficulty walking. The duchess, given a stark performance by Rachel Weisz, cares for her, and we see them having sex.

Emma Stone sassily portrays Abigail and, young and beautiful, Abigail gains the affection of the queen, much to the consternation of the duchess, and nasty, scheming competition erupts. The situation is complicated by the queen’s frequent tantrums. One minute she can be friendly, the next angry and cruel.

Much of what happens is funny from the perspective of the screenwriters and director. The film comes across as a satire on royalty, and certainly on hidden bedroom cravings, which play out as bizarre rather than erotic.

All this is wrapped in the trappings of palace luxury and lifestyle, and the colorful palace grounds and environs, strikingly photographed by cinematographer Robbie Ryan. Political aspects are introduced, but the main concentration is on the three women and what occurs between them, sexually and otherwise.

“The Favourite” is such an oddball film that it is assured divided reactions, but those who find Lanthimos’s work appealing are likely to be pleased and amused by his foray into 18th century royalty and his imagining what happens behind the scenes. The film is a Fox Searchlight release scheduled for November 23. The Festival scored a coup for getting it as the 56th Festival’s opening night choice. Posted October 4, 2018.

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