Tuesday, June 25, 2024

A triptych from Yorgos Lanthimos

     I had an oddly mixed response to Yorgos Lanthimos's Kinds of Kindness, the director's follow-up to the well-received Poor Things, which won a best-actress Oscar for Emma Stone.  
 Was I confounded? At times. Did I find the movie revelatory? Not really. Did I wonder whether Lanthimos has become a prisoner of his own stylized weirdness? That, too.
    Yet Lanthimos held my attention, even as I made peace with the fact that this over-extended movie (two hours and 45 minutes) wasn’t accomplishing much more than providing a showcase for the strange flights of imagination that characterize Lanthimos's work.
     Among them: severed fingers, intentional car crashes, nudity sans eroticism, a pool full of water derived from tears, and a frantic sexual foursome. 
     Lanthimos divides his movie into three distinct stories in which the same actors play different roles. A recurring character named RMF crops up in each of the segments.  
      Reunited with regulars Stone and Willem Dafoe, Lanthimos maintains tension with a signature blend of discordant sound design, unsettling music, and images that tease the surreal, the bizarre presented as if it were normal.
   The cast, which also includes Jesse Plemons in a featured role, fully embraces Lanthimos’s approach. Safe to say that actors who appear in Lanthimos films have a taste for stretching the borders of realism.
  So what the hell is the movie about? In the first segment, a controlling boss (Dafoe) tries to coerce a servile employee (Plemons) into crashing a car into another car, an act of obedience that could result in the death of the other driver. 
   In the second film, Plemons plays a police officer whose marine researcher wife (Stone) is rescued after being stranded at sea. She returns but seems to be a facsimile of her “real” self, a synthetic doppleganger who is asked by her suspicious husband to cut off different body parts to prove how far she'll go to prove her love.
   Film three finds Stone playing a woman who leaves her husband and daughter to join a cult run by a leader (Dafoe) who expels her after deeming her impure. 
   None of these brief descriptions do justice to the three segments, which are full of intricacies and digressions and which make room for performances by Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe AlwynMamaoudou Athie, and Yorgos Stefanakos. 
    I’m not a Lanthimos devotee, although I greatly admire The Favourite and Poor Things. Still, I’d say that Kinds of Kindness qualifies as a lesser work that suggests themes — abuse of power, submission to power, and insanity made commonplace — without exploring them deeply. The movie can be perplexing, funny in a deadpan way, and even off-putting. 
   Less lavish than Poor Things, Kinds of Kindness feels  like a sketchbook in which the director tests various ideas.  If you see the movie, you’ll notice that Lanthimos's close-ups have a cruel intensity, unless, of course, you’ve always wanted to examine every pore and blemish on Plemon’s face, to cite just one example.
   I felt no ill will toward Kinds of Kindness. Scorn might have been better than a giggle and a shrug accompanied by little desire to unpack the movie's mysteries any further. I'll offer this, though:
   At one point, Lanthimos makes use of the Eurythmics hit, Sweet Dreams. The song's lyrics, also featured in the movie’s trailer, provides a strong suggestion about what drives the movie’s characters:
   “Some of them want to use you 
   Some of them want to be used by you
   Some of them want to abuse
   Some of them want to be abused”
   As I said, not Lanthimos’s best work, but the director kept me watching with the mixture of attention and curiosity his work always demands.

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