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Emma Stone Reunites With Yorgos Lanthimos

Emma Stone Reunites With Yorgos Lanthimos

After reaching a wider audience with two beguilingly idiosyncratic period pieces, The Favourite and Poor Things, Yorgos Lanthimos returns to the startling collision of conventional reality with occurrences surreal, bizarre and disturbing that characterized his earlier works, most notably Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. He also reunites with his co-screenwriter on those projects, Efthimis Filippou, for Kinds of Kindness, a trilogy of progressively weirder stories that’s both an uneven head-scratcher and a fascinatingly unpredictable exploration of such subjects as love, faith, and in particular, control.

The enigmatic nature of the film, right down to its title, is clearly no accident. You get a sense while watching that Lanthimos is reinvigorated by the opportunities of the tripartite structure and the chance to subvert the rules of both society and storytelling. It may not be as thematically cohesive on a first watch as some audiences will wish for, but the longer you mull it over the more the pieces of the puzzle begin to fit and the common threads start to emerge.

Kinds of Kindness

The Bottom Line

A cryptic triptych.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Release date: Friday, June 21
Cast: Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe Alwyn, Mamoudou Athie, Hunter Schafer
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenwriters: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou

Rated R,
2 hours 44 minutes

Irrespective of the degree to which the three stories are interwoven, this is a work of audacious originality, vicious humor and balls to the wall strangeness, giving the impression there are few places the director won’t go. That includes places of darkness, perversity and mutilation not for the squeamish, but there’s a counterbalancing lightness to Kinds of Kindness that serves the material well.

The feature came together quickly while the Greek director was still in post on Poor Things. It allowed him to extend his collaboration with Emma Stone a third time, while also bringing back two of her castmates from their most recent film together, Willem Dafoe and Margaret Qualley. Watching those actors, plus new recruits including Jesse Plemons and Hong Chau, play different roles with different relationship dynamics in the three stories is a significant part of the pleasure. That aspect adds to the intriguing idea that Lanthimos could be assembling his own like-minded repertory company.

The titles of each story are built around the initials R.M.F. by which an unassuming-looking man (Yorgos Stefanakos) is known. However, he remains peripheral to the narratives, all three of which end like featurettes with their own cast list.

In The Death of R.M.F., Plemons plays mild-mannered Robert, the husband of Chau’s Sarah. As part of an arcane pact with his wealthy boss Raymond (Dafoe) — who bankrolls the couple’s middle-class comfort and sends them lavish gifts of sports memorabilia like a mangled John McEnroe tennis racquet — Robert has basically surrendered all free will. He receives regular written outlines of each day’s events from Raymond, accounting for every last detail, such as what he wears, what drink he orders at a bar and even when he has sex with Sarah.

Lanthimos has the actors play all this as if it’s an entirely normal transaction, with Plemons projecting Robert’s eagerness to please while Dafoe conveys Raymond’s thinly veiled malevolence.

But the arrangement hits a snag when Robert follows instructions and rams a car with R.M.F. at the wheel but neither kills that other driver nor is hospitalized himself, as was outlined in the plan. Robert balks at Raymond’s order to repeat the crash at a higher speed, prompting his boss to cut him off with cold finality. But taking back control of his life proves challenging, especially once it’s revealed how many people, from Raymond’s wife Vivian (Qualley) to friendly optician Rita (Stone), are a part of the puppet master’s scenario.

The story’s amusing wrap-up has Vivian at an electronic keyboard, tunelessly singing the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love,” which is the fundamental question Raymond asks of everyone in his employ, as well as the predominant binding thread of the trilogy.

Plemons, an actor with extraordinary range who’s the standout of a stellar ensemble, plays Robert’s escalating desperation with grim inevitability. But that’s nothing compared to the descent into sinister obsession of policeman Daniel, his character in the next story, R.D.F. Is Flying.

Daniel’s maritime biologist wife Liz (Stone) has gone missing on a research expedition, causing the cop to sink into depression. When his partner on the force, Neil (Mamoudou Athie), and his wife Martha (Qualley) try to offer emotional support over dinner, a distraught Robert begs them to watch a video of Liz with him. Their reluctance doesn’t come close to preparing you for what’s revealed in the home movie, a kinky source of comfort that’s perhaps Kinds of Kindness’ most hilarious gag.

When a rescue helicopter finds Liz and a fellow researcher on a deserted island, her return home is tainted by Daniel’s growing certainty that the woman in his house is not his wife. Every little way in which she differs from his spouse heightens Daniel’s suspicious hostility. Liz relates a dream she had on the island, in which dogs were in charge, people were animals and animals were people. The savagery that emerges from Daniel’s paranoia — or justified certainty? — becomes decidedly inhuman, allowing Stone to take a macabre plunge into horror as Liz acquiesces to her husband’s insane need for appeasement.

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Each story is fed by what’s come before, just as the different characters take on shades of the actors’ other roles. The final chapter, R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich, is the least coherent and its nasty taste is most likely to alienate audiences, though it affords Stone, who’s terrific, the widest character trajectory.

She plays Emily, who has abandoned her husband Joseph (Joe Alwyn, returning to the Lanthimos fold after The Favourite) and their daughter to pledge her devotion to a creepy sex cult led by Omi (Dafoe) and Aka (Chau).

Partnered with fellow acolyte Andrew (Plemons) and receiving assistance from a morgue attendant (Athie), Emily’s task is to find a potential spiritual leader with reanimation powers. She’s shunned from the sect once her purity is compromised by Joseph. But when a stranger (Qualley) comes forward insisting that her twin sister is the one Emily is seeking, she goes rogue in a bid to regain Omi and Aka’s favor.

This is a wacko package to be sure, and overlong at two-and-three-quarter hours, so mileage will vary even for devoted Lanthimos fans. But Kinds of Kindness compels as a deranged look at our need to be loved, even at the cost of submitting to someone else’s insidious control.

Every one of the actors — including Hunter Schafer in a small role in the final episode — fully connects with the director’s peculiar wavelength. They keep the film engrossing even when it’s most perplexing.

It also looks gorgeous. Freed up from the studio builds and interiors requiring extensive lighting in their last two joints, Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan make crisp widescreen compositions of their locations — while shooting took place in and around New Orleans, the stories are set in an unnamed American coastal city — and although the visual scheme is relatively simple compared to the director’s recent work, there are still plenty of skewed angles to give it an edgy vitality.

The other distinguishing factor is the use of music, starting with The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” which opens the movie with a punchy jolt. As he did for Poor Things, English musician Jerskin Fendrix contributes an unconventional score that’s frequently abrasive, in keeping with the disquieting tone. It ranges from dissonant tinkling piano to crashing chords, passages by turns chiming and staccato, and choral pieces of feverish intensity.

Kinds of Kindness will likely be something of an acquired taste, but at the very least it’s a movie that keeps you wondering where it’s going next. A debt to Luis Buñuel notwithstanding, Lanthimos is his own breed of storyteller, and that alone makes his work something to be savored.

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