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27 June 2024

Yorgos Lanthimos’s Kinds of Kindness is grotesque

The director of Poor Things and The Favourite presents three nasty tales of domination and submission.

By David Sexton

Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action, says Auric Goldfinger. By this measure, Kinds of Kindness is determinedly hostile. Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to Poor Things contains three grotesque short stories about domination and submission, returning to the themes so clearly articulated in his debut about family madness, Dogtooth, 15 years ago.

Lanthimos’s last two films, The Favourite and Poor Things, were big period productions, full of jokes and spectacle, scripted by the Australian comedy writer Tony McNamara, and they won him mass audiences and many awards. For Kinds of Kindness he has returned to his long-term collaborator Efthimis Filippou, and the result will disconcert his more recent fans.

These three fables were selected from ten the pair had developed over the years and originally they had intended to weave them together into a single, polyphonic film in the manner of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. But since the principal actors are the same in each story – Lanthimos’s established troupe of Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe and Margaret Qualley, with the excellent addition of Jesse Plemons – they realised this would create too much confusion, so the tales are offered consecutively, like a parodic triptych of the kind favoured by Francis Bacon. A sarcastic overall link is provided by a silent character called RMF (Yorgos Stefanakos), who appears glancingly in each segment, but, as Lanthimos notes, “having the same actor go from one story to the next adds a sense of continuation on a subconscious level” anyway.

In “The Death of RMF”, Plemons plays Robert, whose life is controlled by his wealthy boss Raymond (Dafoe), who dictates what he eats, drinks, reads and wears and when he has sex with the wife (Hong Chau) that Raymond selected for him. In exchange, everything is provided for Robert, from his lavish house to the sports memorabilia he treasures, such as “a genuine smashed McEnroe racket from 1984”. As usual with Lanthimos, no explanation is offered of this set-up: we are left to discern its extent gradually. The painful affinities it has with how we live with our bosses, our partners and families dawn on us slowly, until we start wondering if all our social structures might be arbitrary cults in the end.

In “RMF Is Flying”, policeman Daniel (Plemons) is desperately mourning his shipwrecked wife Liz (Stone), when she is rescued from a desert island. Daniel becomes possessed by the idea that she is not really his wife but an imposter. Her shoes don’t fit. She gobbles chocolate, to which she was allergic. Although they had a love life that involved videoing themselves wife-swapping, Liz is now differently sexually importunate. Daniel has a breakdown and demands she prove herself by serving herself up to him, literally: first a thumb, with cauliflower on the side, then internal organs… Marriage! Lots of us have been there.

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In “RMF Eats a Sandwich”, Andrew (Plemons) and Emily (Stone) are acolytes of an actual cult, led by Omi (Dafoe) and Aka (Chau), who have sex with disciples and sanctify the water they drink with their tears. Racing around madly in a Dodge Challenger, Andrew and Emily are in search of a prophesied miracle-worker who can raise the dead but must fit exacting criteria: a young woman of particular height and weight, a surviving twin. When Emily is cast out of the cult, contaminated after rape by her estranged husband, she tries all the harder to please.

These are nasty tales of desperation and need, control and humiliation. They are also bad dreams, their oneiric nature enhanced by the shifting players, just as in troubled sleep. Filming in natural light in the anonymised outskirts of New Orleans, cinematographer Robbie Ryan uses wide views in which the characters seem stranded in negative space and intense, partial close-ups, thus denying context, just as dreams do. Jerskin Fendrix contributes a score of discordant piano notes and sinister choirs.

Clocking in at 165 minutes, the impact of Kinds of Kindness is cumulative (the working title was simply “And”) and distinctly alienating, despite the various treats offered en route (a fantastic little sequence in which dogs rule, more mad dancing by Emma Stone).

Lanthimos maintains that however cruel and dark, even frankly sadistic, his films are, they are hopeful, if not in their plots then in their humour and the catharsis offered in the collective act of watching. Another way of looking at it would be that in his films he has brilliantly created a cult of his own and demands submission.

“Kinds of Kindness” is in cinemas from 28 June

[See also: The Bikeriders looks cool – but feels pointless]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain