Oh, to be one of the chosen. I guarantee this thought washes over every single person attending the Cannes Film Festival, at least at some point. It is a realization laden with ambivalence, as both an exclamation and a lament; it’s the characters in Yorgos Lanthimos’ newest feature, Kinds of Kindness, that have to grapple with a very similar in-between. What validates you can also annihilate you; no surprises here in this conclusion, since the ensnarement of human power dynamics has long fascinated the Greek writer-director. Fittingly, for his 2024 Competition entry, he has teamed up with regular collaborator Efthimis Filippou––their duet on The Lobster won them an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay––to deliver a rapturous thought experiment in three parts. Kinds of Kindness is an anthology-of-sorts, with three distinct stories that are taking place in the same fictional world in a rather nondescript American setting (New Orleans will do) and the same actors across the triptych. 

The usual suspects (Emma Stone, Robbie Ryan, Willem Dafoe, Yorgos Mavropsaridis) join Lanthimos on this darkly humorous endeavor, with Jesse Plemons and Hong Chau now fitting the bill perfectly. All the characters face a choice between freedom and control––where control equals love, remember Dogtooth?––and one expects them to make the wrong call. In this game, everyone loses; like in life, we can at least laugh about it. So we did, at a roundtable with Lanthimos in a room somewhere in one of Cannes’ luxurious hotels, discussing Kinds of Kindness, the traps of freedom, and zero interpretations of it all. 

The Film Stage: During the press conference today, Emma Stone said that you are not as intense as your films…

Yorgos Lanthimos: Yeah, that wasn’t very nice. I am an intense guy, aren’t I? [Laughs]

But what shaped your artistic vision to be as intense, meaning sharp and transgressive at the same time?

I don’t know. The world itself is enough to shape you into that. Of course we are the product of all influences, the way of all of the things you mentioned––how you grow up, whatever happens in your life, what things make an impression on you, what doesn’t, circumstances, being brought up in Greece, whatever. It all contributes to seeing the world in a specific way. Every person is very unique as an individual, but then it’s about how you take that and transfer it into some kind of work or how you express those things. It’s never easy to say exactly what it is. 

One of the main features of Kinds of Kindness is how it depicts control and manipulation. You mentioned you were inspired by Caligula, the “madman” Roman emperor. What came next?

There’s not much more than that. I read about him and I started thinking, you know, there’s parts of it in which his control over people is just so astounding that, like life and death, that kind of situation and thinking whether that exists today and in certain ways. And what if you took that as a situation and drove it to extremes and see what is [made up of] these kinds of relationships and what does it mean? And what does it mean about free will and control? Believing in someone and trusting someone. It just felt like a complex starting point. So we started making up this story. 

You’ve talked about how the new film came together so soon after Poor Things. Was it at all about seizing that momentum?

No. Well, yes and no. On the one hand, it took so many years to complete this script. So it was in our minds for a very long time and it changed over time. And it grew and it matured. We just felt that, at that point, there was a very mature script we felt confident about. And it was more about, like, “We have it.” There’s other things we’re developing. There seems to be this amount of time that we’re not doing much other than, you know, watching a couple of shots every other week. So why don’t we just take advantage of this timeframe and [make this movie]? Because we were always going to do it. I think it was always going to be the same people. Even if we did it a little later, there was that option, but I don’t know. I just feel a need… all of the things that I’m working on, to kind of put them out instead of having them linger––which they linger for years anyways, just because of the logistics of it. It takes time to complete each film. So having that in mind that it takes so long to complete a film, the fact that there was this script that we felt was ready and was sitting around, it just made me want to find a way to do it. But it wasn’t like, “Oh, we don’t have any idea. Let’s take these people. Maybe we’ll think of something.” It was like a very long, matured process. So you know: yes or no. 

You’re working with Efthimis Filippou as a co-writer again after The Favourite and Poor Things, but you’ve spoken about your collaboration as very close and intuitive. It probably doesn’t feel like a reunion exactly?

I didn’t get back with him. We’re always working on things like… The Killing of a Sacred Deer was what? 2017? And then we immediately started writing something else. It was just that I just started developing a lot of projects and deciding which one goes next is always like, which script kind of comes together first and other conditions… who’s available, where can you shoot, weather, whatever. So yeah: we’ve been always working together and we’re very close. We’re good friends. So every time we finish something, we start something new. And actually we started working on this script right after The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It just took many years to complete, and actually that was quite beneficial as well because we could look at it from different perspectives. We had time to gain some distance while we were doing other things in-between. It took a while and we’re still working together. 

Was Kinds always a film in three parts, or did it start as a single feature before the other stories came in? 

We started writing the first story, as I said before, after reading about Caligula, being inspired and having this situation in mind. We started writing that script and it was supposed to be this one story. But soon after, we also felt the need to experiment a little bit with form as well––to do something with a film that we hadn’t done before. So we came up with this idea of making a triptych film and collected our ideas in a list. From that list we just instinctively chose two more that would go with this first one, but we started developing all three of them at the same time. At that point I had the idea of having the same actors play multiple roles in the film, in the different stories. So that then pushed us into writing the stories, like, individually, like presenting them one after the other instead of showing the stories in parallel.

What kind of conversations were you having with your collaborators to ensure consistency across the three parts?

You know, all that kind of led us to the form, and in terms of consistency there’s obviously a certain kind of voice and the same actors. I felt that was something that brought a lot of consistency. Also like a lot of layers, in some way, although the characters that they play in this story are not really related and not similar at all. As a viewer, I don’t think you can avoid bringing some things or some feeling or something with the actor to the next character. So it felt that there was a kind of continuation, but it was not literal. It was more like getting familiar with one of the actors that then brings you to the next story as someone else. So there’s that. 

And then we decided to approach the stories in a very similar fashion. So we wouldn’t try and distinguish them one from the other, visually or sonically or with music. I mean, there would be slight differences just because the stories were different. But other than that, not much is.

Regarding the location: why did you choose New Orleans as a backdrop to these stories? 

When we were writing, we didn’t have a place in mind, but then it just felt more like an American story. So we wanted to go somewhere in America, and then we needed a large body of water for the boat. I mean, these practical things do get taken into consideration very soon after. So America: big lakes, water. Also the South, so the weather is good. Then you start looking at locations in the South and where there are tax incentives. Which place is busy or not? And we just felt that New Orleans, from the other places that we looked at, just had more of an atmosphere and that we didn’t necessarily have to point out that it was New Orleans [to work]. But some of the atmosphere would creep in without having to, like, underline or showcase it. So it would add something to the film without it being too obvious. 

The characters strive to be free, but fail. Do you think that freedom is a kind of prison?

Freedom as a kind of prison? Well, I guess [the film] raises those kinds of questions, since it is showcasing, I think, the complexity of relationships. It asks questions of whether we even know what we want, whether we’re free or not––if that’s the best for us or having some kind of structure and rules in our lives is actually beneficial, or is it beneficial to also break away from them?

I don’t think I’m making any kind of, or have made any kind of, absolutes in my life, or come to a natural conclusion that freedom is a jail. I think. I just think it’s very complex to know exactly how to handle it and how to navigate those kinds of situations and relationships. But yes, when you are totally free, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. Different people can handle it in different ways so that, for someone, can be as restrictive as a prison.

Another director might have given us a slight hope at the end of such a film, but Kinds of Kindness is a bit… can we say hopeless?

Not having any hope? This particular one, I don’t know.

I mean, is it a reflection of your vision toward today’s society? 

I don’t know. I just made a film before [Poor Things] that had a happy ending. [Laughs] I mean, I don’t think hope necessarily comes from the plot of a film. I think hope for me is there, even if the film is quite dark. Humor helps and I think that [Kinds of Kindness] is quite funny. There’s something about looking at terrible things, but also seeing the humor in it and how ridiculous they are. That’s a certain kind of hope, because we’re human beings, and I think we can’t avoid––after we experience and process terrible things––to see the humorous aspect of them. So I see this as a part of my offering of hope. 

And I think it’s just the fact that you create these works that reflect the world and show even terrible things, and then people look at them and can start thinking about these things and ask questions about freedom or whatever, that’s hopeful. I think the process also is hopeful, like watching films is hopeful. The catharsis doesn’t have to be ingrained in the plot of a film, but it comes also from the collective act of watching it, thinking about it, discussing it with ourselves, thinking about it again, seeing it at another time when we feel differently. We then see different things.

Kinds of Kindness premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival and opens on June 21.

No more articles