‘Kinds of Kindness’ is Yorgos Lanthimos’s Return to Dark Cinema

Having won over audiences with a succession of Oscar-winning films, Yorgos Lanthimos embraces the darkness of his earlier work in the strange and disturbing ‘Kinds of Kindness,’ starring Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe and Margaret Qualley.

Picture Margaret Qualley in a silk kimono, awkwardly singing the Bee Gee’s “How Deep is Your Love” in a shaky voice on an electronic keyboard. The bizarre scene perfectly sums up the question Yorgos Lanthimos begs to ask in his latest film, Kinds of Kindness, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival: How deep can one go for love? How far are we willing to go to be loved?

Lanthimos comes to Cannes fresh off the success of his two previous Oscar-winning films, The Favorite (2018) and more recently Poor Things (2023), both of which star Emma Stone and were co-written by Tony McNamara. However, it seems the Greek director had a strong desire to break from his streak of popular films and reunite with screenwriter Efthimis Filippou, whom Lanthimos collaborated with on his earlier, darker films, including Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer. The director also brought together his company of actors – Stone, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn – while inviting new players to join them: Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog), Hong Chau (Showing Up), Mamoudou Athie (Elemental), and Hunter Schafer (Euphoria).

Shot on film for widescreen in anamorphic lens, the 2-hour-45-minute film is a lengthy triptych, revealing three dark comedic stories in which the actors all play different roles. Although each segment is distinct, they all seem to take place in the same twisted universe. Shot during the postproduction of Poor Things, on location in New Orleans, and in natural lighting, the stories explore themes such as power dynamics, free will and the desire to belong.

Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe in 'Kinds of Kindness'. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The first tableau presents Robert (Jesse Plemons), a man who is made to inform his boss Raymond (Willem Dafoe) of every detail of his life – what he eats and drinks, when he has sex with his wife (Hong Chau), what he wears, what he reads (Anna Karenina). That is, until his boss asks him to crash his car into someone else’s with the objective to kill. Their bond resembles a toxic father/son relationship with a hint of incest.

Dafoe’s character Raymond clearly echoes Barry Keoghan’s troubling character Martin in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, in his perverse desire to play God, controlling life and death. When Robert attempts to stand up to his boss by refusing his demand, it becomes clear that he’s unable to live without his tormentor. His desire to be loved by him is too strong.

The second story focuses on a marriage. Daniel, a policeman (Plemons), grieves Liz, his marine biologist wife (Stone), who is lost at sea. When she miraculously returns, Daniel becomes convinced Liz is not her real self. He begins to test her love through cruel acts of self-mutilation, driving them both to a state of complete and utter madness. The story can be seen as a metaphor for a couple’s slow and painful breakdown, as well as a more universal inability to accept change. However, it’s unclear what Lanthimos is trying to say amid the blood and broken bones.

The final segment follows Emily and Andrew (Stone and Plemons), a duo of cult members searching for a gifted woman with the supernatural ability to bring back the dead. Dafoe brilliantly embodies their leader, Omi. There is a joy in watching Dafoe parade in a fluorescent pink speedo, alongside Hong Chau, displaying the breadth of her talent as Aka, his guru wife. In each segment, Chau never shies away from adding layers of irony to her performance, making her an eminently fascinating actor to watch. Stone comes through in this last tableau as a deeply lonely woman who has left behind her daughter and husband (Joe Alwyn) to join the cult. Yet she struggles to let go of her old life and never seems to know where she belongs. The cultish atmosphere is reminiscent of Ari Aster’s Midsommar, as themes of sex, domination and contamination loom over the characters.

Ritual, an essential ingredient to Lanthimos’ films, is once again shown throughout Kinds of Kindness. Through play, repetition and rules, he attempts to dissect human nature. However, unlike Poor Things or even The Lobster (2015), which could be viewed as a deeply bleak but romantic film, Kinds of Kindness lacks heart. Viewers are unable to feel compassion for his characters, watching them instead from a clinical distance, observing them as if they were laboratory mice. After all, maybe this is Lanthimos’ objective. His films are always exhilarating to watch and it’s clear he feels at home in this dark and unsettling atmosphere. His stories force us to observe and question the strange rituals we adhere to in our own society, but it’s long, exhausting and, at times, too foggy. We are left pondering if we really are in on the joke with him or if he’s just alone for the ride.

Kinds of Kindness is due to arrive in French cinemas on June 26.

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