Cannes 2024: Kinds of Kindness; Oh, Canada; Scénarios


For anyone who complained that Yorgos Lanthimos went soft with “Poor Things” and “The Favourite,” “Kinds of Kindness” revives the malicious tendencies that have run through even some of his best films. The movie reunites him with his early and frequent screenwriting collaborator Efthimis Filippou (“Dogtooth,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer“), and the shift in tone from the last two features is whiplash-inducing. “Kinds of Kindness” is not “Poor Things 2,” and moviegoers who wander in expecting that are in for a nasty shock.

“Kinds of Kindness” is really three movies in one—the first two around 50 minutes in length, the third a little longer. The three segments share a cast (Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Joe Alwyn), a few motifs, and a general philosophy of life that boils down to the idea some people “want to be abused,” as Annie Lennox sings in “Sweet Dreams,” which immediately perked up my Cannes audience as it blared over the Searchlight logo.

But exactly how much abuse—and how many other kinds of sorrow—can Lanthimos deadpan his way through in 164 minutes? Suicide, rape, domestic violence, vehicular homicide, animal cruelty, a miscarriage, forced abortions, cult brainwashing, self-amputation, police brutality—all of it just becomes stuff for Lanthimos to stage as if it’s no big deal. His elegant tableaux are expertly framed, again, by the cinematographer Robbie Ryan, in locations in the New Orleans area. (The two still have a thing for wide-angle lenses, except this time they’re shooting in widescreen, which gives the gimmick some new inflections.) Your mileage may vary, but at a certain point the casualness with which Lanthimos treats all of this material becomes far more disturbing than darkly funny. And in fairness, nobody said that “Kinds of Kindness” was supposed to be a comedy, although it’s difficult to imagine what else it thinks it is.

The first chapter, “The Death of R.M.F.,” immediately introduces us to a man (Yorgos Stefanakos) with those initials embroidered on his shirt. But maybe it’s a feint! Multiple characters in the segment turn out to have the initials “R.F.,” including the protagonist, Robert (Plemons). Robert has outsourced every decision in his life to his boss, Raymond (Dafoe), who leaves him instructions on what books to read, what he ought to eat and drink, and how often he’s allowed to have sex (Chau plays Robert’s wife).

Raymond also, with the logic of an abuser who insists that Robert’s acquiescence is just a way of demonstrating love, insists on total obedience, no matter how bizarre his instructions. He makes nice by bestowing gifts—specifically, memorabilia from sports legends, in one of the film’s better running gags. The premise has real potential, sometimes realized, especially once Stone—by far the performer most on Lanthimos’s wavelength—turns up as a woman called Rita. But the sheer cruelty of the punchline ends the segment on a sour note.

“R.M.F. Is Flying” fares better, partly because it’s more equal-opportunity in its mean-spiritedness. Plemons plays a police officer, Daniel, whose wife, Liz (Stone again), is suddenly found after having been thought lost after a disastrous maritime research trip. How exactly did she survive, anyway? Daniel isn’t convinced it’s her. (Her feet are too big.) And this time, it’s the Plemons character who makes bizarre demands for shows of loyalty from his wife, and the pair’s lives become a folie à deux.

But “Kinds of Kindness” goes off the rails in “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich,” which casts Stone and Plemons as members of a cult (Dafoe and Chau play the leaders) searching for a woman who apparently matches some sort of prophecy. Best not to say too much, except that, perhaps out of a need to up the ante, Lanthimos seriously miscalculates when trying to come up with a way in which a character might run afoul of the cult. Nothing in “Kinds of Kindness” could be funny after that. And a lot of the film isn’t so funny beforehand.

For sheer humorlessness, though, look to Paul Schrader’s “Oh, Canada,” his second adaptation (after 1998’s “Affliction“) of a novel by Russell Banks, who died last year. “Oh, Canada” revolves around a dying documentarian, Leonard Fife (Richard Gere), who agrees to be interviewed for a film by two former students (Michael Imperioli and Victoria Hill). He sees it as more than an opportunity to simply share his story; for him, it’s what he describes as his “final prayer,” an opportunity to confess to things he has never revealed. During shooting, his current wife (Uma Thurman) looks on from off-camera.

The American-born Fife is regarded as a hero in some circles for resisting the draft and fleeing to Canada. But the story of how he got there isn’t simple, and Leo’s memory isn’t so good either. His recollections bounce around in time. This poses a dramaturgical challenge for Schrader, who has to deal with the fact that Leo doesn’t resolve many of the stories he starts. 

Still, Schrader makes things even harder for himself with some dubious decisions—casting Thurman in dual roles, for instance, or having Gere crash his own flashbacks. Mostly young Leo is played by Jacob Elordi, but sometimes Gere himself will turn up in the memory scenes, which leads to awkward moments like the one in which old Leo converses in bed with young Leo’s pregnant second wife (Kristine Froseth). And while Gere can be an underrated actor, his endless variations on “muttered anguish” made me wish, as they did in “Time Out of Mind” a decade ago, that someone would hand him an Oscar from off-screen just to put a stop to such self-conscious effort.

One film at Cannes truly qualifies as a final statement: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Scénarios,” an 18-minute short that ends with a scene that Godard filmed the day before his death by assisted suicide. Trying to distill late Godard into words is an impossible exercise, but the short, divided into two parts—”DNA, Fundamental Elements” and “MRI, Odyssey”—initially proceeds in the sort of storyboards-in-motion mode seen in last year’s “Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars,” with bold colors; serene, sliding movements; and (once it kicks in) a densely layered sound design

In the “MRI” half, though, throughout which MRI-like scanning noises play sporadically on the soundtrack, the film takes a turn for the concrete: It culminates in a montage of death-haunted scenes from some of Godard’s own movies (“Band of Outsiders,” “Contempt,” “Weekend”) and other films by directors he admired (Howard Hawks’s “Only Angels Have Wings,” Roberto Rossellini’s “Open City”). Then, there is a shot of Godard, sitting on a bed reciting a text about “fingers and non-fingers” that surfaced in the “DNA” strand. It turns out to be a text from Sartre, and Godard concludes it with a sendoff that I won’t spoil.

In an extraordinarily moving double bill, “Scénarios” was shown with another, longer short, “t,'” in which Godard—over what, unless I missed a cut, appeared to be an uninterrupted 36-minute shot—takes his collaborators Jean-Paul Battaggia and Fabrice Aragno through his notes on the film as they existed at that point. The second short offered a rare opportunity to see Godard at work—and to see just how carefully his late films were planned—although, he says, there is “one last image that doesn’t mean anything.”

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