Kinds of Kindness: Everyone is Kind its Own Way

Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics kicks off Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kinds of Kindness, yet those dreams will be anything but sweet. Here’s a full review of the Greek director’s latest journey back in time


28/06/2024

By Rebecca Ceccatelli. Courtesy Image Instagram

We had somewhat understood that Poor Things! (2024) and The Favourite (2018) were exceptions, or perhaps just experiments within a very multifaceted language. A few months after his modern reinterpretation of Frankenstein, Greek-born director Yorgos Lanthimos reveals a return to the past at the Cannes festival. He did not give up on his penchant for a specific cast, with the pairing of Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe for Lanthimos being just as significant as that of Owen Wilson and Bill Murray for Wes Anderson.

Exploring the theme: what does kindness mean in Lanthimos’ universe?

Kinds of Kindness not only triggers our tongue as we pronounce its title but will definitely trigger every part of our body when we watch it. That is why we are here to discuss: what does it mean to be kind in the Lanthimos’ world?

Kinds of kindness the plot: a multi-layered narrative

Although it may initially appear to be a film with a single storyline, we soon realise that the climax of “Kinds of Kindness” comes very early, at one-third of the length of the entire feature film. Just as we start questioning ourselves, the characters reappear in new roles and a new story. Kinds of Kindness is actually structured as a series of three acts, each telling a different, yet related, story.
The first, titled The Death of R.F.M. (an acronym that will recur in all three titles), is a controversial story of continuously unmet expectations: a high-ranking, bourgeois man with an apparently perfect life soon reveals to be nothing more than a puppet of his boss Raymond (played by Willem Dafoe). Raymond provides him with everything in his life, from his wife to his house, even down to the tennis racket broken by McEnroe in 1984. Soon, however, the situation worsens for the main character despite his attempts to reciprocate his boss’s kindness. He ends up having to do increasingly extreme favours and eventually decides to rebel. How hard will it be, however, to lose all his established points of reference? Will he be willing to give up the comfortable master-servant dynamic? The ending provides all the answers without giving you time to cover your eyes. Soon, R.F.M. is Flying begins.

Jesse Plemons is now unrecognisable as he bursts in wearing a police uniform. This surprising appearance once again deceives expectations, as the righteous ideals of justice he should fight for are soon replaced by his personal struggle to find Liz, his beloved wife, who was missing at sea. This scenario becomes unsettling when he shares his nostalgia with friends through unusual material (and we don’t want to spoil that part). Amid a hint of disgust mixed with curiosity, Liz returns, and a series of scenes follow that leave the viewer questioning the complex nature of the narration: what is really happening? What is the right perspective to analyse the scenes? Is Liz the real Liz, or is it Daniel who can no longer integrate her into his life after her long absence? Lanthimos delves much deeper, and the tests of trust towards the husband become increasingly extreme. While a lot of time is spent on detailing the unfolding scenes (sometimes even too detailed), there is not much left for explanations as it’s soon the turn of title cards that introduce the finale, R.F.M. Eats a Sandwich

The final episode of the feature film is filled with surreal moments as two envoys from a special sect search for a woman capable of awakening the dead. Andrew (Plemons) easily gives up his old life to join the community, while Emily (played by Stone) must confront ghosts from her past life that haunt her, ultimately becoming influenced by them. Even though the search is heading in the right direction, Emily is rejected by Omi and Sharon. She feels that her life is over, starting from her lack of “purified” water that only the community can provide her. However, she does not want to give up, and once again, her attempts to regain the trust of the “pure” will go to extreme lengths.

The Greek weird wave: Kinds of kindness director’s Lanthimos as a pioneer

In 2011, Steve Rose, in an article for The Guardian, defined the Greek Weird Wave. He stated that “the most disordered country in the world was producing the most disordered cinema in the world.” With this introduction, it is not difficult to believe that Lanthimos is the pioneer of this unusual cinematic movement. He inaugurated its arrival with Dogtooth (2009), which he co-wrote with screenwriter Efthymis Filippou, just like their new work, Kinds of Kindness, further highlighting a nostalgic note from the past on the part of the director. Perhaps Lanthimos, after transitioning from the Greek scene to the standardised world of Hollywood, got a bit carried away with the commercial aspects of the industry. His cinematic roots are firmly established in Greece over the last two decades, where the film industry played a role in the country’s recovery from the great financial crisis. However, he approaches political and cultural issues in unsettling and unexpected ways here, conveying a sense of disturbance and eeriness. 

As in his groundbreaking 2009 film, the new blockbuster has already become a representative of the Greek Weird Wave, but at what cost? Although the film won numerous awards at Cannes, where many praised its uniqueness, once it was released internationally, many criticisms emerged from those who had fallen in love with Poor Things! a few months earlier (without realising how many similarities actually unite the two feature films by the director).

Stylistic choices: distressing slowness and misleading symmetries

Two hands gesture close to our eyes while the speaker’s face is left to the viewer’s imagination for now. Suddenly, a steady, horizontally moving camera shifts the focus to a new frame. However, while early cinema aimed to capture subjects in motion—leaving the task of capturing stillness to photography—in Kinds of Kindness, the protagonists are often still scenes. The cinematic aspect is portrayed solely through a continuous voiceover that never stops speaking. At the same time, though this can be considered a characteristic of the entire film, each microcosm (episode) features specific stylistic choices that are consistent with the plot.

Throughout the entire three-hour film, the first episode is characterised by a deliberate slowness. Raymond’s calm demeanour is depicted through scene changes that imply the rapid passage of time, while each shot flows in real time. The director often uses uncut shots for a single scene to emphasise the slow pace of life and daily routine, making us feel like puppets under the control of a boss who dictates our lives. In the second episode, the experimentation is heightened with an editing style that preserves the viewer, even though they may not feel protected from the raw scenes where blood often takes centre stage. The intense pathos of some shots is frequently cut, leaving a bittersweet feeling for those who are drawn to delightful horror. The continuous cuts in the film disrupt the normal progression of the story, creating a lack of linearity. However, its progression is still understandable. This may disappoint the great masters of functional editing of early cinema, but it pays homage to the experimental Dada and Surrealist art movements. In the third episode, the focus is on colours and symmetry, evoking a pleasant landscape by the sea where a happy community resides, in contrast with the crude settings that will appear later, like morgues, grotesque motels, and dark skies. However, all this is concealed behind an expedient of harmony used since the times of the ancient Greeks: balance. Many shots are symmetrical or carefully angled to suggest a harmonious composition, leaving the viewer even more disturbed when the action unfolds.

Viral soundtrack: enhancing the narrative

Finally, it is impossible not to mention the film’s viral soundtrack. Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics opens the film, while Brand New B**** by COBRAH closes it. Throughout the progression between these two pop tracks, however, some grotesque, gothic, and at times unsettling Gregorian chants by Jerskin Fendrix highlight moments of tension, adding to the atmosphere. Raymond fires Robert, and a gloomy chant repeats, “no, no, no.”; Liz cuts her finger, and a lament guides her to her husband’s room. If the sound in a film contributes 50% to its impact, then here, the sound is just as pivotal as the Stone-Dafoe duo.

Let’s get to the point: where is kindness in Kind of Kindness?

There is no single answer or definitive interpretation of what Kinds of Kindness aims to achieve. The various stories explore our relationship with kindness and how it is defined, testing the limits of the definition in every conceivable way. Lanthimos takes situations to the extreme, suggesting that in these extreme cases, kindness and our pathological—yet fundamentally human—need for love could ultimately lead to our downfall. How far can someone go in the pursuit of love, respect, and acceptance? In Kinds of Kindness, all these elements come together under the overarching theme of the power dynamics between human beings. The story deliberately disorients and suggests a dreamlike aesthetic, with settings that do not provide precise coordinates of space and time, and a narrative rhythm that makes everything feel muffled and distorted. 

This could be interpreted as an overemphasis on people’s desire to please others, as well as a societal need for a powerful and reliable authority figure to follow. It reflects the idea that one’s existence is tied to fulfilling a specific role, often centred around serving others. Throughout the story, kindness remains the central theme: a form of kindness that is grotesque, deceitful and opportunistic. Quite the opposite of genuine. What does this new blockbuster by Lanthimos reveal about our inner selves? Besides appealing to our fascination with the uncanny, what obscure information is the director hiding beneath a shroud of horror and disturbance?

Fields of Study
Art

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