'It's all fetish for me': What really drives the man behind Only God Forgives

‘Drive’ director Nicolas Winding Refn’s new thriller, ‘Only God Forgives’, finds Ryan Gosling seeking revenge in Bangkok. Oddly, the controversy has been about its lack of dialogue rather than its ultra-violence

Nicolas Winding Refn, director of Only God Forgives: "I make films about the things that arouse me"

Nicolas Winding Refn, director of Only God Forgives: "I make films about the things that arouse me"


It comes as little surprise to find Nicolas Winding Refn, the director behind Only God Forgives – Cannes 2013’s most divisive, obtuse film – in divisive and obtuse form. The filmmaker responsible for such incendiary gems as Pusher, Drive and Bronson doesn’t mince words. Or does he? It can be awfully hard to tell. Does he really believe that Drive, the film that saw him take home the Best Director prize from Cannes 2011, was his version of Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman?

Oh yes. Apparently Mr Marshall “did it first”.

Does he really view himself, in the manner he outlined at the film’s press conference, as a pornographer?

“Yes. It’s all fetish for me. I make films about the things that arouse me at different times.”

So the news that he has ditched a remake of Logan’s Run in order to rework Barbarella for TV: that counts as fetish, right?

Well, no actually. He’s reimagining the intergalactic hussy, once made famous by Jane Fonda, for his daughters: “I want to make something they can see. And I love the idea of a woman in space.”

Obtuse. Divisive.

Refn is neatly dressed and willowy and his elegant silhouette seems like a logical extension of the billowing white curtains and hazy azure backdrop of the Marriott Hotel’s Bulgari rooftop. An auteur and a provocateur, he belongs in Cannes as much as the mega-yachts in the distance – that $200-million dollar boat with the helipad belongs to Steven Spielberg – or the obscenely priced couture on every street corner.

Mind you, the director’s delicate frame and narrow wrists seem at odds with the bruising ultra-violence of his films. His latest gangster picture, Only God Forgives, like many of its predecessors, repeatedly returns to the image of a clenched fist.

“It’s an extension of the erection,” suggests Refn. “It’s male brutality and male entertainment. It’s sex and violence in a single image and gesture. It’s every fight movie. But when you open up a clenched fist into a palm it becomes very feminine and very submissive.”

Remarkably, the film’s leading man, Ryan Gosling, says even less during Only God Forgives than he did during his near-monosyllabic turn in Refn’s Drive. An altogether minimalist experience, the director and actor’s second collaboration ditches the catchy, accessible generic beats of their previous outing for a series of mythological associations. At Cannes the “boo birds” came out in force; then again, at Cannes, the “boo birds” turn out for almost everything.

Watch the trailer - Only God Forgives

Refn seems pleased that they did.

“It’s like when Lou Reed had to follow up Transformer,” he says. “Everybody wants another Transformer. But that’s not how art works. Art has to divide. If it doesn’t divide it doesn’t penetrate. And then it becomes nothing more than consumption. People forget that Drive was polarising. Not everybody loved it. But they learned to. What’s happening now is the same process.”

Ironically, most of the objections to Only God Forgives have not referenced the film’s extreme depictions of violence or its incestuous undertones. Instead, the film’s fiercest critics have attended to Refn’s use of pure cinematic device and his refusal to spoon-feed the viewer.

“Cinema is supposed to be silent,” he insists. “Cinema is supposed to tell a story through music and image and sound. But we’ve become so used to being talked at. We’ve become so used to being guided through cinema and television by verbal explanation that we can’t handle silence or image or music. Silence, for any duration, makes us uncomfortable.”

Refn’s nightmarish and frequently silent martial arts flick – Muay Thai has seldom seemed so scary or cerebral – opens with a Cain and Abel riff when Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and kills an underage prostitute. The act attracts the rough justice of Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a self-styled “Angel of Vengeance”.

Billy’s surviving brother Julian (Gosling) is soon visited by their mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a bloodthirsty, hyper-sexualised blonde who wants Chang dead. The disturbing Oedipal interplay between Julian and Crystal is further amplified by scenes of ocular torture, various impalings and the film’s repeated detours down some very Kubrickian sub-corridors.

Erm. Odd as it sounds, would we be wrong in thinking that the entire drama occurs in some kind of vaginal space? It’s a very red film. Refn stops stirring his coffee, smiles and peers over his impeccable sunglasses.

“That’s as good an explanation as I’ve heard,” he says. “Yes. I think that’s right. It is all about the womb. It’s a man who is chained to the womb. He cannot escape.”

Though Refn mentions several stylistic touchstones – Richard Kern’s The Evil Cameraman, Dante’s Inferno, Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, Chilean absurdist Alejandro Jodorowsky, to whom the film is dedicated – for Refn the prime driving force towards behind Only God Forgives seems to have been his wife’s difficult second pregnancy.

“The helplessness of being a male in that situation was a kind of castration,” he says. “The fear was overwhelming. It was terrifying. But I had no control. I began to see that women were at the centre of the universe and I created Kristin’s character to reflect that.”

The casting of Kristin Scott Thomas in a role both she and the director have described as “Lady Macbeth meets Donatella Versace” was a happy accident. Refn was hoping to find an unknown in Britain when the celebrated Franglais thespian happened upon the screenplay for Only God Forgives. She had no problem with “the bitch switch” says the director. But some of the film’s colourful vocabulary was trickier.

“English is not my first language so I had to ask Ryan [Gosling] what is the worst thing that Crystal could say about Julian’s date. He came up with ‘cum-dumpster’. It took Kristin 10 takes to say the word.”

KST, as Refn is delighted to call her, had originally signed on to play Luke Evans’s mother.

When the Welsh actor left the project for a part in The Hobbit, the director was forced to turn to his old mucker, Ryan Gosling. In the end, the casting reinforces the filmmaker’s notion of a trilogy, comprising Viking romp Valhalla Rising, Drive and Only God Forgives (or possibly a quadrilogy if we want to include Bronson, his mad study of dedicated UK criminal Charles Bronson).

“Those films are like two sets of pairs as they were made so close together,” says Refn. “Drive and Only God Forgives were made back to back so they feel like part of the same project for me. But Drive is a night in LA on cocaine and Only God Forgives is an acid trip in Bangkok. They’re different sensations.”

As ever with Refn, the new film is saturated in the colour red, a carnivalesque (not to mention intrauterine) touch that has come to define much of the Danish director’s work.

“It’s because I’m colour blind,” he insists. “It’s my favourite colour. It’s erotically charged. It’s bloody. It’s frightening because it is how we look underneath when we peel back everything. But I do not see it because I can’t. I can’t see mid-range colours at all. So my films are full of contrasts.”

Is he being obtuse for the sake of it? Is Only God Forgives just another instance of Refn reeling mass audiences in, only to trip them up with difficult follow-on material? Hardly. Ever since Refn first exploded onto the international scene with the Pusher trilogy and Bleeder, his films have resisted the urge to play to the gallery. Fear X, his first Hollywood project, bankrupted his film company.

He has subsequently walked away from Channing Tatum’s Magic Mike, a rejigging of The Equalizer with Denzel Washington attached and projects featuring Harrison Ford and Keanu Reeves. Further industry headlines have linked the director with Wonder Woman starring Christina Hendricks, a Maniac Cop remake and an adaptation of 2000AD’s Button Man.

“I could make a bad movie that makes a ton of money,” he shrugs. “But where would be the pleasure in that? If you just want to sell commodities you might as well sell stocks.”

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