Film

Kinds of Kindness show it's not enough to accept alienation under capitalism – we must love it too

A star-studded cast eclipses director Yorgos Lanthimos’s critiques of capitalism in his follow-up to Poor Things

Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe in Yorgos Lanthimos' 'Kinds of Kindness'

Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe in Yorgos Lanthimos's Kinds of Kindness. ©Disney

In the first of the three loosely connected vignettes that make up Yorgos Lanthimos’s Kinds of Kindness, a meek but devoted businessman crashes his car so he can spend a night at the hospital. This is to appease his boss, a Machiavellian puppeteer who directs every moment of his subordinate’s life, in exchange for a great house, a loving wife and priceless sports memorabilia.

But Robert (Jesse Plemons) doesn’t do everything Raymond (Willem Dafoe) wants just for these rewards. It’s because he’s drawn to Raymond’s authority and has come to crave the dependence and validation that courses through their relationship. 

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The following two stories, which give more central roles to cast members Emma Stone, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau and Mamoudou Athie, are also perverse looks at the need to be desired and approved, but only this opening chapter centres on emotional manipulation of capitalist hierarchies – that labourers become worthier by supplicating to their superiors and getting their blessing. Lanthimos’s film satirises the idea that the greater wealth and influence someone has, the closer they seem to godliness.

Kinds of Kindness premiered at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, to less fanfare than his triumphant, award-winning Poor Things, but many critics still responded to the Greek Weird Wave director returning to jet-black, cold-hearted satire of a sick society. This Cannes saw the launch of many films confronting the hollow, dangerous reality of pursuing capitalist success through its various late stages.

Ali Abbasi’s uncanny Donald Trump biopic The Apprentice flirts with showing the former president fabricating a soul in order to sell it to the devil; David Cronenberg’s exploration of grief and tech in The Shrouds finds a well of dry humour in the ways apps and AI invade our most personal pains; Francis Ford Coppola’s self-funded Megalopolis is an epic and unwieldy narrative experiment of a virtuous intellectual never giving up on civil improvement. 

Many of these films were conceived earlier than the usual two- or three-year film production cycle (Coppola has been brewing Megalopolis since the ’70s) but the way they are in conversation with our current moment feels striking. Films like these explore large, collective ideas on a microcosmic dramatic scale. 

We are encouraged to trust authority and convenience, because they promise to uncomplicate our lives, so long as faceless suits can profit from the process. We must deny that ruthless individualism hurts those around us, but even if we don’t, there’s nothing we can meaningfully do to resist it. Films like Kinds of Kindness show it’s not enough to accept alienation under capitalism, we must love it too.

Perhaps the trend of late-stage capitalism films at Cannes would not be so noticeable if it weren’t for the political status of international arts festivals being scrutinised in 2024. Cannes sports one of the heaviest armed police presences of any film festival, and there’s an archive of racist microaggressions across the years. In this year’s edition, protests were banned, labourers voiced their mistreatment, but the festival was quick to celebrate the radical voice of director Mohammad Rasoulof, whose film The Seed of the Sacred Fig earned him a lengthy prison sentence, prompting his escape from Iran to attend the premiere. There seem to be contradictions between the artistic voices Cannes wants to platform and the ways the festival functions, but you don’t need much specialist knowledge to understand that nearly every festival operates on this very contradiction.

Festivals benefit from aligning themselves with valuable, articulate political voices, but not because they want to platform any specific message. Rather, politically minded art brings a prestige and urgency which festivals want to associate themselves with, as a festival’s main priority is to stay viable until the next year. This means that urgent calls-to-action are discouraged, and unethical sponsors are defended until the last possible minute. It is not that every arts festival is equally guilty of hypocrisy, but that the dynamics of supporting radical art only when it is profitable can be found to some degree in all of them.

To Cannes, a film like Kinds of Kindness is perfect – the buzz generated by its star-studded cast and audacious style completely eclipses the volume of critiques of how capitalism makes us crave security and approval from the wealthy. When it releases this month, it may not resonate alongside Megalopolis, The Apprentice or The Shrouds like it did in Cannes, but it will be able to stand separate from arts institutions that water down its message. If art is always political, so are festivals, just not in the way they say they are.

Kinds of Kindness is in cinemas from 28 June. Rory Doherty is a freelance screenwriter.

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