Yorgos Lanthimos makes you squirm

SPOILER ALERT: The following review contains mild spoilers.

A submissive office worker lets his boss dictate everything, from what he wears to the woman he marries. In the next segment, the same actor (Jesse Plemons) takes on a different role, that of a cop mourning the disappearance of his wife. When she resurfaces (in the form of Emma Stone), he is less than enthused when she tries to dominate him in the bedroom. Eventually, a woman (also Stone) abandons her marriage to follow an evil cult leader (Willem Dafoe) who orders her to find an elusive healer.

With “Kinds of Kindness,” director Yorgos Lanthimos – a pioneering member of the Greek band Weird Wave – serves up a triple dose of weirdness. After achieving box office and awards acclaim with “The Favorite” and “Poor Things” (flamboyant literary adaptations, both written by Tony McNamara), the merciless surrealist performs a hard reset, reuniting with the scribe of “Dogtooth” Efthimis Filippou on several deadpan parodies. of control and consent: in the corporate workplace, in marriage, in religion – all areas where people willingly give up their power to others. Set in a wacky parallel present where dogs are in charge and death is negotiable, this three-part, nearly three-hour anthology film finds Lanthimos taking a victory lap, complete with a killer cast and resources. much richer from an American independent studio to its credit. elimination.

The less you know, the more effective “Kinds of Kindness” will likely be – although you will no doubt want to discuss or deconstruct the film after the fact. It’s an interrogative concoction sure to baffle and delight in equal measure, structured in a way that makes you feel like you’re binge-watching three episodes of a nihilistic knockoff of “Twilight Zone,” while an approach overall intertwined (à la “Magnolia”) could have supported better. make connections between chapters. Regardless, Lanthimos trades in discomfort, trusting his audience enough to take his provocation as they please.

Less than ten years ago, the director made his English-language debut with “The Lobster,” introducing subtitle-shy American audiences to his dark and somewhat deranged mode of satire. Although only a modest success in the United States, this curiosity acquired by A24 proved to be an opening salvo in a broader trend, which I like to call “weird films”, as Young audiences are attracted to independent films with unpredictable and often scandalous elements. In some cases, just one shocking scene will be enough; in others, it’s all cuckoo. For a generation that feels like it’s seen it all, Lanthimos and his peers (directors like Ari Aster, Alex Garland, and Robert Eggers) offer the promise of surprise.

This is perhaps the only way the latest Lanthimos can be considered to satisfy everyone’s expectations: at no point during “Kinds of Kindness” can the audience pretend to anticipate what will happen next. This long, searingly original film fascinates while frustrating, defying conventional logic while presenting an absurdist riff on modern society. It’s never boring, and yet Lanthimos’ outrageous sensitivity demands a special patience (not to mention wariness) from viewers, many of whom will come to see Plemons and Stone stretch beyond their comfort zones respective, to then see the same limits tested. in themselves.

Stone, who starred in the director’s previous two films, takes a while to appear, leaving the audience introduced to Plemons’ first character, a pathetic corporate lackey named Robert who does what his boss Raymond (Dafoe) tells him , even if it means smashing his brand new Bronco into a stranger’s car. Raymond rewards Robert’s loyalty with unique sports memorabilia and a generous modern home, which he shares with his wife, Sarah (Hong Chau). For years, Robert has accepted this arrangement, but this latest request, which amounts to involuntary manslaughter, goes too far, forcing him to refuse Raymond’s orders for the first time. Like much of the film, what follows is much funnier on second viewing, as Robert spirals out of control before returning to his boss.

What do the different actors in this dynamic represent? Does Raymond embody all the bosses, whose expectations largely determine the behavior of the American workforce? Could it be a lawgiver, religious leader, or other authority figure, to whom followers cede their free will? Maybe even a demanding director? The answer is all of the above and perhaps none, because Lanthimos invites us to do what we want with the situation. Unlike “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster,” which provided fairly straightforward critiques of socialization and romantic coupling, respectively, the themes are less clearly defined in this case, resulting in an overall fuzzier allegory. Technically, kindness is offered without thought of reward, while these three vignettes are about characters desperately trying to prove their love.

There’s quite a bit of overlap between the first and second chapters, in which Plemons now plays Daniel, a police officer who hasn’t been the same since the disappearance of his wife, Liz (Stone). When she miraculously reappears, he becomes convinced that she is no longer the same person, and because Lanthimos sets the rules, it is impossible for the audience to determine whether Daniel is acting rationally. Certainly, her mind games – macabre little tests of Liz’s dedication – would seem cruel in the real world. But when we don’t know how gravity works in this universe, how can we interpret its behavior? Again, it’s funnier on subsequent viewings, once the initial shock has passed.

Stone plays a central role in the final chapter, roaring across the screen in a Pop-purple Otter Dodge Challenger. Her character, Emily, drives like crazy, but otherwise toes the line of a guru named Omi (a spaced-out Dafoe), who has tasked her and her partner Andrew (Plemons, now mustachioed), with tracking down an individual endowed with special powers. Omi emphasizes purity, forbidding his followers from drinking or otherwise exposing themselves to “contaminating fluids.” He and his spiritual partner, Aka (Chau), reward devotees with tantric attention, nourishing them with their tears – or excommunicating them when they stray. As in the first chapter, it hurts to be excluded, that’s how cults work.

With no offense to any of the actors who bare all in the film, Lanthimos treats sex (and death) as laughable and absurd. It’s a way of downplaying the importance people give to those two things, let alone abortion, rape, and suicide. His irreverence can be disarming at times, laugh-out-loud funny at others. It’s not clear whether it’s intended to amuse, alarm or enlighten – probably all three. There’s a quirky precision to the whole project, heightened by “Poor Things” composer Jerskin Fendrix’s use of discordant pianos and stress-inducing choruses. Meanwhile, cinematographer Robbie Ryan moves from the artful cinematography of “Poor Things” to meticulous, big-screen compositions, focusing on some of New Orleans’ less picturesque locations.

When Lanthimos directed “Dogtooth,” audiences may not have understood the dry, disgruntled manner in which the Greek actors delivered their lines. But now that he’s directing in English, it’s impossible not to notice — or be annoyed — the way the actors downplay situations that would be heartbreaking in real life. The exception is Plemons, who evokes a young Philip Seymour Hoffman: his emotional commitment to all three roles is commendable, even if he’s on a slightly different wavelength than his mostly blank-faced co-stars . With a total of four roles under her belt (including twins), Margaret Qualley has more to do here than in “Poor Things,” while Mamoudou Athie (who plays her husband in the second chapter) feels underused.

Lanthimos and longtime editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis strike a pace entirely distinct from that of the other filmmakers, creating a tension due less to suspense than to surprise. Each of the segments ends abruptly with a Saki-esque twist, before moving on to the next. Although some themes persist, the only real continuity is each chapter’s main character, RMF (Yorgos Stefanakos), whose changing status gives a sense of their order. To see him eat a sandwich, stick around until the end credits. And to fully appreciate the dark humor of it all, do yourself a favor: buckle up and take the whole ride back.

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