Kinds of Kindness: Yorgos Lanthimos is Cruel to be Kind

Yorgos Lanthimos has stated that “All of my films are problematic.” Even his collaborations with Tony McNamara which are imminently more ‘audience friendly’ and Oscar garnering than his earlier work revel in their own pretty perversity. For Lanthimos cruelty begets comedy in his theatre of the human absurd.

Kinds of Kindness reunites Lanthimos with Efthymis Filippou, a writer for whom humanity is a vast experiment in neurosis, control, and disconnection. Not only is Filippou the writing partner on Lanthimos’ unforgettable Dogtooth, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, he is the co-author of the award winning The Lobster. When not matching misanthropy with Lanthimos, Filippou shares it with Athina Rachel Tsangari (Chevalier) and Babis Makridis (L and Pity).

Lanthimos and Filippou’s thematically linked triptych in Kinds of Kindness feeds into the human malaise; the need to be loved and to belong. There is no mistake that the film views the base need to be connected as an act of self-degradation. The act of withholding comfort leads to the characters fixating on reattachment at any cost.

The three sections all have a peripheral character, R.M.F (Yorgos Stefanakos) who appears at some point, although tenuously in the second piece. Starring some actors from his previous work including Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, and Joe Alwyn. New additions include Jesse Plemons, Hong Chau, and in smaller roles Mamoudou Athie, and Hunter Schafer.

The first part of the anthology, “The Death of R.M.F.” features Plemons as Robert Fletcher, a man so used to following the orders of his boss Raymond (Dafoe) that when he fails to kill a man who volunteered to die, he begins to go into a downward spiral. Every aspect of his life is controlled by Raymond, from what he eats, reads, when he has sex with his wife, Sarah (Chau) and whether that sex will result in a viable pregnancy. Robert doesn’t want to kill even the willing and for the first time he questions Raymond. Raymond’s response is to simply withdraw his twisted benevolence. When Robert finds he is replaceable, and not the only person enacting Raymond’s demands he becomes fixated on forcing Raymond to notice him again and give him back whatever ‘life’ he had.

An unsubtle metaphor for how conditioned people become to giving up their autonomy in a system that (not as blatantly) demands they fit into a corporate culture. If it isn’t servitude with a smile, then is it love?

The second section “R.M.F. is Flying” sees Plemons as a presumed widower, Daniel, who is mourning the loss of his wife, Liz (Stone) when she goes missing on a scientific research trip. Her sudden rescue and reappearance should fill Daniel with joy but when he finds it doesn’t, he becomes convinced that the Liz who returned is a fraud. A replacement for the woman he loved who acts subtle ways unlike his Liz. He pushes Liz into increasingly bizarre and dangerous acts to prove she is who she was. A challenge she cannot possibly fulfil because unconsciously he doesn’t want her to.

Although thoroughly laced with surreal and increasingly disturbing imagery – including the erasure (self or otherwise) of Liz, what strikes hardest is how Daniel’s paranoia is wish fulfilment. Liz in his mind died and her resurrection goes against his notion of established order. Liz wants to be allowed to be home again, to have a home again, to be found and reclaimed. The only way she can prove to her husband she is his beloved wife is to lose parts of herself – again an erasure of self in the name of love.

The final part of the film “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich” is the one section where Emma Stone is the primary character and Plemons the secondary. Emily (Stone) and Andrew (Plemons) are members of a cult who are searching for a messianic figure who can save humanity by curing the inevitable – death. Driving around in a purple muscle car Emily is indefatigable. Omi (Dafoe) and Aka (Chau) are the leaders who insist on the members remaining pure through the water they collect and bless with their tears. They’re also a sex cult where intercourse with Omi is a blessing.

Emily is approached by a young woman (Qualley) who says that she knows who the person is that they are seeking – her twin sister. As the profile doesn’t fit (the twin must be one – the other deceased) Andrew doesn’t follow up. When Emily is excommunicated due to the reprehensible actions of her ex-husband (Joe Alwyn) who constantly dangles their daughter as bait to get Emily to return to an abusive household, Emily follows the lead she was given by Rebecca on her own.

A young vet turns out to indeed be the messiah the cult was looking for and Emily knows redemption is in sight. What she is willing to do to ensure that redemption occurs because sacrifices have been made, once again speaks to the willingness of people to reshape themselves to find community and sanctuary.

Kinds of Kindness by its very nature is both provocative and exhausting. Each section presents an aspect of human society; work, marriage, and faith and pushes them into a dark satirical mirror (one shot by Robbie Ryan and scored by Jerskin Fendrix). Lanthimos gives no quarter in his dissection of contemporary anxiety. His world is a bleak carnival where extremities abound, but it is also this world.

The structure of the work is its main downfall. There are two features and a short masquerading as an anthology. The first and last chapters both dangle fascinating concepts which don’t go as far as they must to flesh out the narratives. Thus, there is a sense of raggedy offcuts thrown together in haste instead of a whole.

Lanthimos gets two incredible performances out of Plemons who continues to impress with his ability to merge completely into a character to the point where it is possible to forget that you just watched him forty-five minutes ago playing someone utterly different.

For a certain generation of film fans there are directors whose work is a pre and post experience. There is pre Michael Haneke, Gregg Araki, Todd Solondz, Claire Denis, et. al. Yorgos Lanthimos belongs in the category of filmmakers who is known in the popular imagination as a ‘redefining force’. They carve their own path, and the audience can walk it or not. The least you can expect is that even their lesser films will have a recognisable spark.

Kinds of Kindness is a lesser Lanthimos and unlikely to bring sceptics into the hive – but it nonetheless coheres to his conviction to disorient and disturb.

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Cast: Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe

Writers: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou

Producers: Ed Guiney, Yorgos Lanthimos, Andrew Lowe, Kasia Malipan

Music: Jerskin Fendrix

Cinematographer: Robbie Ryan

Editor: Yorgos Mavropsaridis

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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