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Yorgos Lanthimos’ career has long displayed a morbid fascination for the contours of the body, mind, and spirit, in all their ugliness. Well before “Dogtooth” shook the international film scene and “The Favourite” won Olivia Colman an Oscar, the Greek filmmaker made his debut with “Kinetta.” While this head-scratching puzzle box may at times feel like a sketchpad draft for his films to come, it nevertheless exerts a hypnotic power that makes it easy to see why Lanthimos quickly became a director to watch.
Most of Lanthimos’ movies include self-flagellation of some sort, whether the literal acts of torture inflicted by the women of “The Favourite” on themselves, like Emma Stone slamming a book on her head to win favor with her lady, or Colin Farrell readying to jam a steak knife into his eye as tribute to his lover in “The Lobster.” Physical martyrdom is at the forefront of “Kinetta.”
The movie revolves centrally around three characters, none of whom are likable. A police officer (Costas Xikominos) who is obsessed with BMWs and surveillance, a miserable photographer (Aris Servetalis) who gets off on staging strange public entanglements, and a maid (Evangelia Randou) who aspires to be an actress via bizarre home movies all intersect and collide in strange ways. Together they unite in a common goal: to recreate homicides. You wouldn’t want to run into any of these people in a dark alley, mostly because they’re all dangers to themselves. Most of the actors have hovered in or around other Lanthimos films, and are clearly attuned to his weird rhythms.
Thimios Bakatakis — Lanthimos’ trusted cinematographer on “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” “The Lobster,” and “Dogtooth” — does more lurking than probing, seemingly hanging around just to capture whatever demented antics unfold. There is certainly a slapstick quality to this movie that the director has persisted in making his calling card, which makes for uncomfortable but often necessary laughs just to break up the pain.
Meanwhile, the landscape of Greece hangs like a collapsing ruin in the backdrop. This is an unpleasant, unvarnished world of strip malls, motel rooms, and parking lots. While none of this sounds like a recommendation, it is: there’s an eerie, relaxing pull to “Kinetta” as Lanthimos draws his audience into a seamy world of lowlives, the kinds of people he has continued to explore all the way from “Alps” to “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”
According to an interview on Elvis Mitchell’s The Treatment podcast, “Kinetta” is the favorite movie of Lanthimos’ wife, the French-Greek actress Ariane Labed, who’s starred in most of her husband’s films outside of “Kinetta.” That’s quite a statement, and possibly we might have Labed to thank for continuing to enable her spouse’s dark fantasies. We’re better for it.
In “Kinetta,” there is no bottom to the depths of debasement these people will go. But even when the characters are degrading themselves, like when the maid allows the voyeuristic cop to rip up her dress and watch her writhe on the floor with a vacant stare, they’re in control. Or in an early scene when that same maid appears to be choking herself in a lonely room as if for an audition that will never come. That control, even at the most masochistic level, is oddly the hallmark, and often the saving grace, of any Yorgos Lanthimos movie, because ultimately these people aren’t just torturing themselves for the hell of it. They’re searching for themselves, in their own deranged way.
“Kinetta” is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.