indi’s review published on Letterboxd:
what if i should fall asleep and slip under?
(i was asked to write on the mud bath scene & i figured that, since i am an orbiting member of the Letterboxd Women Who Post Stupid Jokes Instead of """Real Reviews""" community, i might as well post it as an actual review. eat me.)
arriving abruptly at approximately the centre of the film, the mud bath scene is surprisingly brief. probably only a couple of minutes long, it's nonetheless so delicately crafted and beautifully acted that it has this magnetic, sticky quality. i quite honestly could not look away from the screen here even if i tried. one of the reasons it's so particularly electric, i think, is that it's a capsule of not only the film's entire narrative, but its central dynamics and characters as well.
for a film so concerned with games, both leisurely and political, this apparently innocuous scene has perhaps the clearest compendium of moves. abigail makes a move (i must be at the queen's side and behest at all times. it is my role), sarah makes a daring countermove (i thought, what a grand idea to take to the mud. get all the poisons one carries with one out), anne, the arbiter, warns sarah but ultimately does not actively dissuade her (do not scratch at her). if i am to oversimplify, this moment calcifies the key traits that, i would say, are the driving forces behind each woman's displacement over the course of the film. sarah wins this round but her pride, combined with anne's inconsistency and abigail's determination, will ultimately lose her the game. therefore, this scene operates as an almanac just as easily as an anthology: all three of them will continue to swirl around each other, clawing and caressing in equal measure until they all win, and all lose.
on top of all that content, which makes the scene dense but not necessarily too complex (yet), what pushes this scene over into brilliance is that it allows these delineations to exist alongside a multitude of contradictions. there is of course the obvious - anne and sarah are quite literally getting in a tub of wet dirt to clean themselves - but there are also more subtle forces at play. for instance, it's just about the only scene in which we see sarah in some kind of state of undress. usually, as the self-appointed edge of the knife, she's put together to the point of rigidity; even when she's injured, or lying sick in a brothel, or literally on top of queen anne, she's not only fully dressed, but cuts a harsh, masculine figure. i would argue that the bath scene is the first and last moment we see her intentionally hinting physically at vulnerability, and she's not even doing it out of a desire to be vulnerable - instead, it's a calculated show of strength, directed at abigail but for anne. only in this film would taking all your clothes off be a political power move, a fuck you, and an act of devotion.
aside from those specifics, this scene is maybe the most clearly limned instance of the characters themselves actively exploring gender. sure, it's funny when anne and sarah draw on fake mud moustaches and drop their voices by half an octave - but in much the same way sarah is using a sweet, light moment with anne to stab at abigail and remind her of her inferior position, the scene itself uses this risible moment to explicitly centre how complicated gender (and therefore sexuality) is for these women. it's interesting, i think, that anne follows sarah's lead and they both mimic men, rather than falling into easy, heterocentric roles. even when performing gender, they choose to do it in a way that is fundamentally distant from heterosexuality. on the other hand, however, their assumption of male roles is fleeting: they play at being men, but ultimately all evidence of it vanishes. crucially, however, the film avoids coding this misogynistically; no female character is "missing" anything, even authority, by being inherently female. instead, they're goofing around with masculinity, and with each other, before letting the moment go. therefore, instead of presenting the usual period drama thesis - isn't it Sad that this Mere Woman did not have the Power of a Man to get her out of her Helpless Circumstances - the favourite just allows women to exist and adopt variations of power without coding it irreversibly as a masculine trait. sarah and anne wash off their moustaches and return their voices to their usual pitch. their agency is insoluble.
i love the mud bath scene very much.
anyway, i hope this little chunk of analysis did this beautiful moment some justice. also can people please leave all the gays alone about our joke reviews of this movie now. i came prepared to the joke party anyway and i would like to close with this:
i haven't identified with a character in YEARS as much as i identified with the useless, bulbous eyed twink terrified of causing rachel weisz's eyebrows to rise in dissatisfaction