Kinds of Kindness review – sex, death and Emma Stone in Lanthimos’s disturbing triptych

<span>Kinds of Kindness, with Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe.</span><span>Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima</span>
Kinds of Kindness, with Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe.Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima

Perhaps it’s just the one kind of unkindness: the same recurring kind of selfishness, delusion and despair. Yorgos Lanthimos’s unnerving and amusing new film arrives in Cannes less than a year after the release of his Oscar-winning Alasdair Gray adaptation Poor Things. It is a macabre, absurdist triptych: three stories or three narrative variations on a theme, set in and around modern-day New Orleans.

An office worker finally revolts against the intimate tyranny exerted over him by his overbearing boss. A police officer is disturbed when his marine-biologist wife returns home after months of being stranded on a desert island, and suspects she has been replaced by a double. Two cult members search for a young woman believed to have the power to raise the dead.

Lanthimos uses repertory casting – and part of the film’s eerie joke effect, the effect of seeing the universe mysteriously doing the same awful things over and over, is in witnessing the same actors repeatedly showing up. Jesse Plemons, Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mamoudou Athie, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau and Joe Alwyn are each given a trio of roles, some intriguingly similar to each other, others quite different. Plemons is often stolid and unhappy. Stone is fierce and capable but sometimes vulnerable and sexual. Dafoe, of course, can’t help being the charismatic authority figure.

And what is even more unsettling is to see the same tropes, images and motifs come up: overeating, undereating; steak, chocolate, the same types of food. Dafoe’s overbearing executive Raymond gives Plemons’s unhappy underling Robert specific instructions on what to eat: “Because there’s nothing more ridiculous than skinniness on a man.” There are hospitals, ambulances, cops; places and people that mean unhappy submission to authority. Women get pregnant, and suffer miscarriages. People try to prove love by submitting to abuse and coercive control. There are recurring dreams whose contents are unsettlingly duplicated in waking existence. And perhaps most startlingly, there is sex, governed by a creepy roofie aesthetic. People keep drugging each other; Lanthimos keeps showing us unconscious naked women. And yet the men are the more contemptible and unattractive.

This is an uncanny world that looks like ours but really isn’t; like Emma Stone’s marine-biologist character, it has been perhaps replaced with a near-perfect copy by a malign unseen hand. Doubles and twins are another motif. And Lanthimos punctuates the bizarre recognition moments with a jarring, plinking piano key. The weirdness mosaic isn’t exactly like the Short Cuts of Robert Altman, who gave us a more recognisably human array of situations, nor is it exactly like the ensemble in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, although Plemons’s cop has the same morose quality as John C Reilly’s officer in that film. The strangeness and fear are more like Charlie Kaufman’s and John Frankenheimer’s horror in seeing something off, something wrong – giveaway hints of a conspiracy or a higher truth.

The effect of it all is elegant and overwhelmingly stylish, yet maybe there’s not a superabundance of substance to go with the style. Kinds of Kindness feels heavier and longer than I expected, as if reaching for a meaningful resolution that might not be there. Yet absence and loss is perhaps the whole point.

• Kinds of Kindness screened at the Cannes film festival.