My_Life_Directed_POSTER_FINAL_A_AIM.inddIn the new behind-the-scenes documentary about Only God ForgivesMy Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, we meet more than a writer/director caught up in his craft. We also meet a father and husband sharing his self-doubt with his truest confidant: his wife, Liv Corfixen. Speaking via Skype with her husband, Nicolas Winding Refn, at her side, she says, “All that fear and doubt, of course, it’s only me who sees that. That’s why I thought I could make it a very personal film … as Nicolas said, he can’t show that side to everyone else because he has to be on top of the world. That’s why I thought it could be a good idea if I made it because it gets more intimate and personal, and that side you don’t get to see.”

“For Liv it’s like, here we go again,” Refn adds.

The couple have been married 20 years and have two daughters, ages 4 and 10. Corfixen is an actress in their native Denmark, and she appeared in small roles in Refn’s early films. But the documentary she has produced is their greatest collaboration yet. Even though, she admits, whenever she sees him caught up in movie productions, she feels left out of the marriage. “All the time. All the time,” affirms Refn.

“Early on, it was easier for me, I guess,” she says, “but as the years go by, I sort of find it harder in a way, or maybe it’s because we started to join him on those trips. Whereas, before, I sort of stayed behind in Denmark with the children, and that was too hard on our marriage, and then we decided to come along every time, like we did in Bangkok, cause then we see him more, but sometimes you get the feeling that you are left out because he’s constantly in a meeting all weekend … but you know it’s only for a few months, so you kinda live with it. It’s not like I’m complaining. It’s just sometimes I feel, oh, we got to get those eight weeks over with, so we can have normal life again.”

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Right now the couple and their children are in Los Angeles where Refn is in the middle of shooting his next movie, The Neon Demon. In My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn, Corfixen captured him anxiously running his fingers through his hair, as he declared about his movie, “I don’t know what it’s about.” It would also seem a little futile to ask him what Neon Demon is about, at this point. When asked about his new film, he said he “kinda” knows what it’s about, but that could change. “I shoot in chronological order,” he explains, “so everything’s a constant evolution.”

Asked now what he thinks Only God Forgives is about, Refn answers:  “I think it’s about many things, but of course there’s a very strong undercurrent of an incestuous relationship between a mother and her son set in the world of crime with a backdrop that is very, very alien because being a foreigner in Thailand is essentially like going to the moon, so there’s a very strong science-fiction-esque element to it, and there’s very much a mixture of Asian spirituality where the acceptance of the supernatural world is as normal as eating, which is very alien to Westerners, so therefore it becomes very much like a metaphor for a man’s journey to essentially be — his impotence is because of his amputation, because of his violent nature, because of his mother that everything leads back to all evil.”

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After he finished Only God Forgives, Refn showed a fascination with the film’s many negative reviews. “I guess there’s almost a kind of sadomasochistic joy in it because, deep down, I know they’re wrong,” he admits.

“But it’s also fun,” adds his wife, who listens to him read a negative review in her documentary.

“It’s kind of enjoying the hatred that essentially has no effect. There’s a kind of Machiavellian joy in it,” adds Refn.

Full disclosure. I was among those who wrote a negative review of Only God Forgives. Although, I like to keep “hatred” out of my judgement: Film Review: ‘Only God Forgives’ is a problematic, distancing art film.

One thing we have in common is an affection for Chilean cult director . He appears in My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn during two revealing tarot readings for both Refn and Corfixen. “Alejandro is all truth,” notes Refn before he explains how important the tarot readings are to him. “I’ve been using him a lot. I’ve also been using him in this movie, regularly. It’s always good, whenever in doubt, call the Jodorowsky hotline. It’s very much part of the game. Obstacles inspire creativity.”

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You can read much more of my conversation with this creative couple, including a fun little argument between them about the possibility that Corfixen may not be a huge fan of his work either, jump through the logo for the Miami New Times Arts section below to read this part of our conversation:

NT Arts

Hans Morgenstern

My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn runs 58 minutes, is in Danish and English with English subtitles and is rated PG-13 (there is adult language). It opens exclusively this Friday, May 1, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque at 7 p.m. On the following Saturday, May 2, at 7 p.m., the cinematheque will also host a Skype Q&A with Refn and Corfixen.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

675662-ogf_largeNote: This is an in-depth analytical review, several weeks after the U.S. premiere of this film. It may contain spoilers.

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After breaking out in Hollywood with the visceral Drive in 2011, Danish-born director Nicolas Winding Refn returns with a rather problematic though ambitious art film: Only God Forgives.  Featuring a stylized, fractured approach to storytelling, the only thing Refn’s latest has in common with his last film is its lead actor Ryan Gosling, extravagant violence and a standout soundtrack by Cliff Martinez. Otherwise, Refn has gone off to explore the edges of cinema in search of reinvention. On a superficial level he succeeds, but in another, deeper level, it all feels a tad amateurish and self-aware.

Dedicating his film to the great surrealist film pioneer Alejandro Jodorowsky, Only God Forgives melds a violent world with the violent consciousness of the film’s anti-hero Julian (Gosling). It’s an interesting set-up to ultimate disappointment, as rgosling-ogfRefn leaves out the great existential and confusing mysteries of life that inform the work of Jodorowsky (read my interview with him). On a practical level, one can blame Refn for failing to stir up sympathy for his characters by skimping on back story and simplistically relegating unhappiness and general bumbling on the part of his hero to an abusive relationship with his mother. It’s the ease with which Jodorowsky taps into profound meta-thematic elements through trippy visuals that have made him a legend, and it comes from a state of loving humanity, something wholly absent from Only God Forgives.

Julian and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) run a drug ring in Bangkok using a boxing gym as a front  so that their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) might live a lavish life in the states (most likely L.A.). One night, Billy heads out in search of a teenage prostitute to satisfy his urges. Billy, only established as a cold and distant figure who speaks in a monotone and seems to sleepwalk through life like a deadpan character out of a David Lynch movie, winds up raping and beating to death a 16-year-old hooker with little remorse.

The father of the deceased is then invited to the murder scene by Police Captain Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) with Billy still covered in the girl’s blood, perched on the edge of a bed. Chang offers the father a chance to exact whatever revenge he may see fit, so the father proceeds to beat Billy with a baseball bat until he cracks his head wide open. Only-God-Forgives-ChangNext, Chang brandishes his ever-present katana, which he unveils from behind his back (you never see its sheath) and slices off one of the father’s hands. Chang informs him that the punishment is for prostituting his three daughters, not for his subsequent justice upon the perp.

Soon after, Crystal storms into the picture rampaging and dressed like a “Real Housewife of New Jersey.” We meet her as she confronts a hotel clerk who informs her that her room will not be ready until four o’clock in the afternoon. She asks for a manager and tells him, “I just traveled 10,000 miles to identify the body of my first-born son, and this fucking bitch won’t give me my room.”

Crystal gets all the good lines in the film. She seems quite aware of who she is, and Thomas embodies her with aplomb. All the men in the film may as well be mute, as only Crystal offers a one-sided form of dialogue that sheds some shred of motivation behind Julian’s actions and fantasies, as, like his brother, he seems resigned to a state of somnambulance.

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Refn sacrifices tautness that could add to the suspense of Crystal’s and Julian’s quest for vengeance for choice scenes between mother and son that feel pathetically humorous. They not only leave Julian castrated but also castrates the film’s tension. In the middle of the film, mother and son find time for a decadent dinner out. Julian is so meek a man, he resorts to asking his favorite hooker Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) to pretend to be his girlfriend. Prior to this dinner, their only scene of “intimacy” involved Mai tying his hands to a chair while she masturbated in front of him. If this wasn’t symbolic enough of his repression, as he watches her, his mind drifts off to one of his many fantasy sequences where his hands are chopped off. And on the film drones and dwells.

As soon as Julian introduces Mai to his mother as his girlfriend, Crystal sees through the pretense. Asking Mai what line of work she is in, Mai responds that she is an entertainer. “An entertainer? And how many cocks can you entertain with that cute little cum-dumpster of yours?” After dinner,only-god-forgives-76 Julian blames Mai for failing to keep up the façade and yells at her to give him back the dress he had gifted her, right there, outside the restaurant. It’s one of the many scenes that lend the film a cartoonish quality that only serves to alienate the audience and relegate women as either comic relief or mere props.

The ultimate-eye-roll-worthy pretense arrives during another scene where Julian seems to drift away into a fantasy sequence where he discovers his mother’s corpse. With Chang’s katana somehow handy he cuts open her abdomen and slowly puts his hand inside and toward the uterus from whence he came. Clearly this is a film more interested in metaphors than characters mixed up in misogynist undertones that plague the heart of this story. While Chang extends eviscerating justice with his phallic weapon without fail and seems invincible, the bitch mother is all bark with little effective bite except on her own spawn. When Chang and Crystal meet, her last words are a write-off of never having come to terms with her younger son. “Billy was my first son,” she tells Chang. “We had a very special relationship. Julian was so jealous. It was like he was cracked or something. He had paranoid delusions about us.” After she calls Julian “a very dangerous boy,” Chang silences her with a thrust to her throat.

That Julian turns to fantasy to cope with his loss, and a gruesome fantasy at that, does not depict mother issues. This is a man far gone beyond reconciling a Oedipal complex. This represents someone who has lost his value for the gift of his own life. movies-only-god-forgives-still-9A return to the womb can provide him no relief, as this womb literally seems long dead. Death is his best and only alternative. But all he gets is a seemingly pointless life that never comes to a satisfactory end by the film’s credits and feels unrelatable and, worse, rather forgettable.

Indeed, contrary to his mother’s warning, nothing in Julian’s actions in the film present him as dangerous. Julian invites Chang into his boxing gym by telling him, “Wanna fight?” He removes his jacket, and casually stalks around Chang as he rolls up his sleeves and loosens his tie. Chang simply stands rigid, arms at his side. In the end, Julian never lands a single blow as Chang evades every swing and strikes Julian at every opportunity, leaving the man-boy bruised, battered and ultimately disfigured on his own floor.

Pansringarm embodies the police captain with not a menacing swagger but a focused determination as cold as anything else in the movie. He offers no mercy and seems cruel with a god-like complex of indestructibility. His human side is depicted in his caring for a young daughter (they exchange no significant dialogue, and he gives her little more than a pat on the head). He enjoys singing at karaoke bars in front of his men, but karaoke scenes are also a Thai film trope. In Refn’s hands these scenes mean nothing beyond his indulgence in style. Unlike actual Thai films by Thai directors, the songs Chang sings are never translated in subtitles, are incomplete and seem chosen for their sonic, affected syntax. Rather than adding a layer of narrative that this film so desperately needs, the two scenes with Chang singing only offer another bit of flash that some of the more uncultured viewers will just find humorous.

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The most memorable character in Only God Forgives turns out to be Crystal as the domineering woman who in turn dominates the narrative. With her children depicted as impotent spawn, as personified by the sad-sack quality of Julian who only seems to clumsily improvise through life haunted by the reminder that Crystal has regrets of not having aborted him from her womb, she consistently rises above the droning monotony with language. “When I was pregnant with you,” she tells Julian, “it was strange. You were different. They wanted me to terminate, but I wouldn’t, and you’re right. I don’t understand you.”

When Crystal sends Julian out to avenge Billy, it is no wonder that he sabotages one opportunity after another to fail her. The trouble with Julian’s inconsistent character is that he is such a developmentally retarded man that he only feels contempt for those he knows intimately. Otherwise, he’s fine with letting go his brother’s killer because his bother may have just deserved what he got. Family second. When Julian is given a chance to kill Chang’s daughter he kills his would-be partner in crime instead. All the while he seems to await Chang’s deadly blow which arrives only in moments of fantasy. Any sense that this may be a chance at redemption seems buried under a mixed message of indulgent violence and passionless characterization.

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The film world is a fantasy world at its most superficial and a mirror to our lives at its deepest. Beyond the flashy cinematography by the quite competent Larry Smith, the film’s soul yawns with a gaping lack of deeper development that I, like Refn, so desperately wanted of this film. With these cold, unsympathetic characters steeped in violence and little, if any redeeming qualities, Refn cannot seem to turn away from glamorizing their malaise with bombastic visual panache and little substance. It’s beyond the fact that they are only painted with negative morals with little back story. It’s the reductive quality as mere archetypes without the substance. Mystery is cool, but it’s clear these central characters are just a bunch of drug-dealing, misanthropic assholes who deserve to be killing each other off. It alienates the audience as superficially as the Avengers franchise would anyone looking for something more than an escapist cartoon.

Many point to the film’s oneric narrative and visual, neon-drenched lighting and a decadent style that permeates the film in general as its high quality. Style may keep you from nodding off, but it can also leave one cold and shrugging. only-god-forgives-ryan-goslingFaces of the conflicted are presented in fractured light, a film noir trope defined more than 60 years ago that feels eye-rollingly cliché by now. The stagey mise-en-scène comes across as flashy and self-conscious. With nasty characters who never seem to earn the right amount of sympathy to warrant the dread the director tries so hard to brew up, Only God Forgives falls flat and far from the classic that will stand up to longtime scrutiny. This is not a Last Year At Marienbad, a Blue Velvet or even an equal to a Jodorowsky movie. This is just a failed ego-trip by a director who seems blinded by his own light show and has lost sight of the bigger picture in a well-intentioned effort to create a challenging film that only feels challenging for the wrong reasons.

Hans Morgenstern

The original Red Band trailer:

Only God Forgives is rated R (it’s gruesome) and runs 90 minutes. It is now playing in the South Florida area exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami Beach. It expands to O Cinema in Miami Shores on Thursday, Aug. 8.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)