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Playing a sex cult leader, Willem Dafoe dons a pair of bright orange Speedos in ‘Kinds of Kindness’

<i>Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Kinds of Kindness traces recognizable power dynamics onto a surreal universe where they are intensified to their greatest (and often bloodiest) extremes — a journey reflected in the outfitting.
Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures via CNN Newsource
Kinds of Kindness traces recognizable power dynamics onto a surreal universe where they are intensified to their greatest (and often bloodiest) extremes — a journey reflected in the outfitting.

By Caitlin Chatterton, CNN

(CNN) — Yorgos Lanthimos — the movie director behind award season darlings “The Favourite” and “Poor Things” — is hailed as a genius by fans of his often strange and unsettling oeuvre. He’s made his name by courting the absurd and keeping audiences on their toes, embellishing his fables of love, power and free will with discordant musical motifs and disarming cuts to a wide lens.

His latest project, “Kinds of Kindness,” traces recognizable power dynamics — those with your boss, with your spouse or even with religious leaders — onto a surreal universe where they are intensified to their greatest (and often bloodiest) extremes.

The film is told in three short stories. In the first, “The Death of R.M.F.,” Jesse Plemons plays Robert, the hapless puppet of his boss Raymond (Willem Dafoe). In the second tale, “R.M.F. is Flying,” Plemons is a police officer whose wife (Emma Stone) has gone missing on a diving trip. When she returns, she seems fundamentally changed, prompting Plemons to test her love for him in progressively revolting ways. In the third instalment, “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich,” Stone and a now-shaven headed Plemons are the disciples of a purity cult led by Dafoe, tasked with locating someone able to revive the dead. Although apparently detached from one another — bar the rotating cast and transient presence of the mysterious R.M.F. character (played by Yorgos Stefanakos) — each entry into the anthology repeats Lanthimos’ career-spanning thesis: human agency is a myth, and people will commit unhinged acts to be accepted by the powerful.

Happily, that dark existentialism didn’t cloud the mood on set. “(Lanthimos) puts together a group of really like-minded, lovely people that he feels will get along,” Jennifer Johnson, the film’s costume designer, told CNN via video call. “Working with Yorgos in general is a very satisfying, exhilarating and scary place, all at the same time. It’s really fun!”

Power dressing

“Kinds of Kindness” is a film imbued with symbolism, and the costumes were critical in defining characters’ relative status; in the first relationship we meet, Robert (Plemons) and Raymond (Dafoe) each wear their power quite literally on their sleeves. Raymond, dressed expensively in Italian suits, is “somebody who has a lot of money, and exudes power and style but does it in his own way,” Johnson said. “It’s this sense of confidence that was really important to telegraph very quickly, and this subtly eccentric way of dressing.”

His looks took inspiration from Gianni Agnelli, the head of Fiat between 1966 and 1996, who was a champion of Italy’s nonchalantly chic “Sprezzatura” style. “He would take hiking boots and wear them with a custom suit, with his watch worn on the outside of his shirt,” Johnson recalled of Agnelli. “It’s this mixing and matching that we take for granted now, but when (Agnelli) was dressing that was something that was very unusual.”

Per Raymond’s written instructions — detailing not only how Robert should dress, but what he should read (always Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”); what he should eat, and when he should have sex with his wife — Plemons is also immaculately suited, if self-consciously so. “(Raymond) gives him things that would make most men really uncomfortable,” Johnson said, pointing to a pink Tom Ford turtleneck Robert’s made to wear. “It’s (one of) the little signifiers of eccentric power play.”

Three stories, three looks

Having crafted a visual language to reflect one power dynamic, the film’s structure meant the same also had to be done for the second and third chapters. “Each story plays for about an hour, so there’s definitely enough character development within each one that it is a full movie. That was very difficult in our short production time,” Johnson said. “Willem is such a great example: you are a CEO, and then you’re (Stone’s) father, and now you’re a leader of a sex cult. To traverse that territory and walk all those distances in one (costume) fitting was a challenge, for sure.”

Most of the cast shoulder three characters each but, in the final chapter, Margaret Qualley had the additional task of playing identical twins Rebecca and Ruth. For Johnson, this required carving out clear character traits. “What was nice is that one twin was really wild and had a punk rock spirit; you can imagine she’s into indie music and is not really walking to a mainstream beat, whereas her twin sister is a veterinarian who is kind of bookish,” she said. “It was important (the veterinarian) wore comfort shoes, so they were her Dansko clogs, and that she would have a darned sock; something that feels homemade. She likes pretty things, but she’s not interested in fashion. You make these rules for each person.”

Dressing for laughs

Despite the film’s grim subject matter, there are unexpectedly comedic moments — not so much to offer respite but, if anything, to add to the jarring effect. Several of them rely on costuming to provide the visual gag — with Dafoe leading the charge.

As Raymond, he stands up from the sofa after lambasting Robert to reveal a pair of exposed knees to the camera; a switch in tone sharp enough to pull roars of laughter from the audience in the movie theater. “There’s not a lot of men in the world who can wear a knee-high sock and a white pleated short and look really gorgeous at the same time!” Johnson joked.

In the third chapter Dafoe plays a cult leader, freed from Raymond’s designer suits and instead sporting little else besides eyeliner and orange Speedos. “Willem is just one of the most lovely, delightful and intelligent collaborators you could ever ask for,” Johnson beamed. “His physicality is so beautiful and lends itself to wearing clothing so well, so he can really go for it and wear the most absurd thing — but it’s not wearing him; he’s wearing it.”

The brightly-colored swimwear — a reflection of the cult’s affinity for water — was a surprise pick for Dafoe, who made a beeline for it in the fitting room. “Because the cult is very sexual, I thought it would be great if we could get him in the least amount of clothes possible,” Johnson said. “It was the first thing that he saw and he said ‘yup, I’m putting that on!’. It was a very fun moment because we didn’t tell Yorgos about it. (Dafoe) walked out for the camera test in it, and it definitely got a laugh!”

On their hunt for the elusive “waker of the dead,” Stone and Plemons’ outfits — earth-tone, loosely-fitted suits paired with sandals — are also laughably conspicuous. Johnson drew reference to “The X Files,” but Ken and Barbie trying to blend in on Venice Beach also springs to mind. “They’re like detectives, and they’re cult members but they have to pretend to be normal,” Johnson explained. “I think those characters thought ‘oh, well a suit makes us look normal,’ when in actuality they look really weird and more scary; they would have been better off in their cult wear, which was just outdoor gear.” Plemons’ suit was one of two found in a gargantuan thrift store — “like a whole city unto itself” — in New Orleans, where the film was shot. “It’s really fun when you find that; you can just imagine the gentleman who donated it,” Johnson said. “It came in dark brown and tan, but the dark brown one never made it onto the camera.”

“Kinds of Kindness” is an oddly-dressed, oddly-paced detour from a traditional blockbuster, but it does make a compelling argument for the collective, visceral experience of cinema. Over the course of an almost three-hour screening, Lanthimos’ efforts provoked audible gasps, averted eyes and strangled groans. There was laughter: full-bodied at times, faltering at others, as viewers grappled with whether they were being entertained or horrified in real time. People recoiled. One person cried. As the credits rolled, a stunned silence fell over the room. The atmosphere had taken on its own heightened reality; complementary to Lanthimos’ style, difficult to stop thinking about on the way home.

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