Two movies about women. Two vastly different views of female power. Two contrasting directorial approaches. Roma and The Favourite both landed 10 Academy Award nominations this year, splitting the top honors. Both are impressive contenders and showcase a range of what cinema has to offer. Though it’s hard not to see the conflicting stories they tell when it comes to their portrayal of women.
The Favourite seems the perfect film for the Trump era. What’s not to like about a black comedy these days? This film delivers imperialistic intrigue, palatial settings, and triumphantly big hair. The story centers on England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) and two cousins who compete for her attentions: the queen’s close friend and ally Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and the ambitious servant Abigail (Emma Stone).
Plagued by gout and given to uneven psychological outbursts, Queen Anne isn’t able to focus on the needs of her country and its people, leaving her vulnerable to the wiles of those around her who are only too happy to help. The queen searches for distractions from her pain through sexual trysts with Lady Sarah and Abigail, but her hunger for love and comfort can never quite be satiated. Weisz’s and Stone’s characters smell opportunity and go in for the kill. They pursue personal and political power with an anything-goes vengeance that includes shooting at, slapping, or psychologically tormenting each other in an effort to be the queen’s favorite.
There is so much clichéd catfighting in this film that it’s not worth calling out. No female nurturing of any kind is allowed, unless you count the bunny snuggling. The film practically shouts, “Women must be men and beat them at their own game to be powerful!” It’s not a flattering portrayal of strong women. With the possible exception of Queen Anne, a bereft monarch who seems refreshingly innocent when compared with the barracudas around her.
The Favourite is certainly beautiful to look at and the acting, particularly of Colman, is duly lauded. The opulent set and costumes offer delicious cinematic porn. Director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) upends expectations with a combination of glee and distaste at nearly every turn (“Look at me! Don’t look at me!”). Even the trailer, which hints at satire, misleads those who enter the theater looking for a lively costume drama.
Some find The Favourite to be a delicious and witty romp. Others see it as a uniquely female saga depicting fierce women doing whatever they must to survive in a male-dominated world. For me, it was just sort of vile and uncomfortable. And not all that funny. Maybe in part because, no one, including the queen, seemed terribly concerned about what was best for the country. These characters only cared about their own self interests. The film left me longing for a kinder and more authentic view of womens’ relationships.
And that’s just what we get in Roma. The film opens as the protagonist, Cleo, a live-in maid in Mexico City, mops the outer entryway of her employer’s home to clean up dog poop. We see a reflection in the soapy water puddles she leaves behind of an airplane passing overhead in the skies above the rooftops. We know right then that Cleo’s life may seem small by other peoples’ standards, yet she holds the keys to a rich world in her calloused hands.
Tonally, Roma is everything The Favourite is not. Filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white footage and slow-moving sequences of sparse dialogue give it a personal, naturalistic feel. The tenderness of Cleo’s character and her empathetic human relationships are conveyed effortlessly as she tucks the children into bed each night or cuddles with them as they watch television with the entire family in their living room.
At its core Roma is a story about female relationships, specifically between an employer and an employee. The ties that bind Cleo with the matriarch of the family become a central storyline. These women love each other, which doesn’t mean they don’t snap at each other occasionally. But there’s no back-stabbing vitriol in the face of life’s biggest challenges (divorce, death, political strife). When these women face difficult crossroads, they turn to each other and find respect, caring, and support.
Cuarón’s long, languid shots invite you to pay attention to life’s simpler moments: clothes drying outside on a line with water dripping from them, the skyline of the neighborhood’s uneven rooftops, the gossip between the domestic help in the kitchen while washing dishes. The artifacts of an everyday life, too often overlooked but essential to survival.
In Roma we bear witness to the intensely challenging moments too—the ones that befall us and we’re forced to face. This is unlike the characters in The Favourite who spend as much time manufacturing their drama as reacting to their circumstances. Cuarón’s honesty is in his willingness not to flinch at the hard stuff—staying seconds too long on a young woman screaming in anguish as she cradles a dying man who’d been shot in the streets, or lingering on a shot in which a mother and her stillborn baby lie on parallel hospital beds.
Like Abigail in The Favourite, Cleo does what she can to survive. To survive in her world, Cleo trades in the only currency she has to offer: kindness. This is in stark relief to the characters in The Favourite who’ve forgotten how to barter humanely. It’s not clear they ever would.
As for women’s empowerment, much has been made about The Favourite’s screenplay having been co-written by a female, Deborah Davis, who is a favorite to take home an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay along with Tony McNamara. Instead of bringing deep complexity and richness to womens’ characters, these writers trotted out old tropes and masked them in a quirky tale with witty repartee. Hardly groundbreaking for women writers. In particular, how are we to reconcile female characters who use sexual favors to advance their power and influence in light of the #MeToo movement?
Oh, but these are just movies, right? In our entertainment-obsessed country where the real media is often viewed as fake news, I’m not so sure. I think movies may matter more than ever.
I know both films can be enjoyed for what they are. If you like provocative filmmaking that makes you stand up and take notice of malevolent actions and people you don’t want to be near, The Favourite is the film for you. Maybe it’s a necessary reminder of how power is misused and the lengths people will employ to keep it.
Or you can hang out with Cleo for a few hours and immerse yourself in kindness.