Poor Things director Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone are back, but will this trilogy be The Favourite?

Poor Things director Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone are back, but will this trilogy be The Favourite?

Joyce Glasser reviews Kinds of Kindness (June 28, 2024) Cert 18, 164 mins. In cinemas

Noël Coward’s final play, Suite in Three Keys from 1966, was a trio: each play had a separate title, and the same actors appear in the same set (a hotel) but the characters they play and the story lines are different. Coward was a bit miffed when Neil Simon borrowed the idea for his triptych, Plaza Suite, first produced in 1968. Now director Yorgos Lanthimos, once again co-writing with Efthimis Filippou, extends his explorations of power dynamics and control with a trio of films collectively, and ironically, entitled Kinds of Kindness.

The same seven actors, who include Willem Dafoe and Oscar winner Emma Stone from Lanthimos’s Poor Things, play different characters in three different, but equally surreal story lines that are increasingly repugnant. Each of the films has its own title, but all three refer to a hapless man (Yorgos Stefanakos) known by his initials R.M.F.

In Dogtooth, an early film from Lanthimos’s Greek period, the control and deprivation was parental but the children’s gradual rebellion, like a ray of hope, comes toward the end as a kind of redemption. In the first story here, The Death of R.M.F. there is parental control going on between employer Raymond (Willem Dafoe) and his employee, Robert (Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog) but it goes way beyond being available by phone after office hours.

Raymond has not only chosen and paid for Robert’s luxurious house and car, but unbeknown to her until it’s too late, he has chosen Robert’s wife, Sarah (Hong Chau). Raymond also tells Robert what to eat, what to read (Anna Karenina) and when he should have sex. It’s John Grisham’s The Firm carried to the Nth degree.

The nature of the Raymond-Robert relationship – which is not confined to the first story – is apparent in the opening song. The Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams blasts those lyrics into our consciousness: ‘Some of them want to abuse you/Some of them want to be abused.’ There’s plenty of that in Kinds of Kindness, but the controllers and the controlled cannot differentiate between acts of kindness and abuse.

In The Death of R.M.F., while the nature of Robert’s past employment is unknown, his current assignment is akin to an insurance scam, whereby Robert must jam his car into R.M.F.’s and, ideally, kill him. The rebellion comes when Robert cannot bring himself to do it. Despite being a company man, Robert retains a vestige of humanity from some parallel universe, which, in Lanthimos’s world, is a disadvantage.

Robert begs Raymond. He will do anything else, anything! But Raymond demands total loyalty – a bit like Donald Trump. Robert is out, and quickly, a female clone named Rita (Emma Stone), is in. Robert finds that he can no longer function without Raymond, particularly as Raymond has blacklisted Robert in terms of employment and though he lets Robert keep the house, Sarah has disappeared from it. It’s as if she were created to keep Robert docile and obedient, as in the film Total Recall.

Desperate, Robert recants and decides to compete with Rita and win back Raymond’s favour. Fortunately, both Rita and R.M.F. are in hospital after Rita was nearly successfully in pulling off the assignment.

Unlike Coward’s and Simon’s triptychs, here there are multiple locations – from swanky mansions to high rise offices, although Lanthimos does not want us to be distracted by a physical location (the film was shot in New Orleans). The one setting common to all three stories is a hospital.

The Death of R.M.F., is just about relatable, with the creepy tension of Lanthimos’s films before Poor Things. It might be a fable or a parody of life in a brainwashed society: a 1984 that is written from the point of view of Big Brother so that the characters have no consciousness outside of their stultifying lives.

In the next two stories, however, Lanthimos returns to the male deception, rape, and explicit female nudity that, in Poor Things, masqueraded as a woman’s liberation story. Here, there’s no issue of interpretation: the men are in charge, women are controlled or disappeared and most of the violence is perpetrated on women.

In R.M.F is Flying, Plemons is police officer Daniel, who has become unhinged since his wife Liz (Stone) went missing. When she returns, everyone is jubilant, but Daniel is convinced the woman is a cyber clone and she knows it. So, they play a game. Liz tries to please Daniel, but he rejects her suggestion of group sex, which we see them engaging in via a flashback. To please him, the imposter turns to self-mutilation. Here is another echo of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘perfect’ wife Lori, in the Sci-fi thriller Total Recall, only Daniel never falls into his virtual wife’s trap, and there’s nothing thrilling about his discovery.

The final story, R.M.F. Eats A Sandwich is set, rather redundantly, in a cult. Dafoe is Omi, its guru leader, who rules over zombie-like minions with partner Aka (Hong Chau). Emily (Stone) has left her husband Joseph (Joe Alwyn, The Favourite, Mary Queen of Scots) and daughter to join the cult, charged with scouting the region with Andrew (Plemons) for a miracle worker to bring back to Omi. The miracle worker must, among other things, be a woman so that the candidates can strip and Stone can measure their breasts. Don’t ask.

Emily, who only drinks the holy water from the cult’s well, sneaks in a visit to her family home and accepts a cocktail, unaware that Joseph has laced it in order to rape her. Sure enough, we recognise Stone’s naked body from Poor Things. Emily’s overnight stay causes Omi to expel her, much as Raymond expelled Robert.

And, similar to Robert, a repentant Emily is determined to regain Omi’s favour. We are now introduced to Margaret Qualley’s (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) dancer’s body as she takes the spotlight, having played minor roles in the first two stories. Here she plays twins: one is sacrificial and the other, with the biblical name Ruth, is sacrificed. The fate of both twins is violent and shocking. No male characters suffer such ignoble fates, not even R.M.F. The red on his shirt as he orders his sandwich at the end is just ketchup.

Has Lanthimos brainwashed Emma Stone into playing women who are humiliated, controlled, stripped bare and raped, or, as in Poor Things, become nymphomaniacs after discovering the joy of sex? So far, the career move has paid off with an Academy Award, but in this film, it’s the chameleon Jesse Plemons who might grab a nomination.