When the film Only God Forgives was released 2013, it divided critics. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn was riding high on the breakthrough popularity of 2011's Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. Only God Forgives was meant to be his follow-up film with Gosling, but it was anything but a sequel.
Defined by Refn's signature extreme violence, Only God Forgives was set in Thailand. Gosling played a drug dealer haunted by an Oedipus Complex who dreams of having his arms chopped off. Though it may have confused many, they were in good company. There were many times while Refn was shooting the film, where the director expressed a personal frustration about what the film was about.
Of course, he did not admit this publicly. Rather Renf confided his self-doubt to his greatest confidant — his wife of 20 years, actress Liv Corfixen. In a newly released behind-the-scenes documentary, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Corfixen turns the camera on him, catching Refn with his defenses down while he was in the middle of shooting Only God Forgives in Bangkok.
Speaking via Skype from Los Angeles where he is in the middle of a two-month shoot for his next film, The Neon Demon, Refn says, “It's one of those things where it's almost therapeutic to kind of experience because I basically have to lie to everyone else and say how great everything is and how good everything is and how strong everything is and how great it's gonna be, constantly, because you have to be the magician that inspires everyone else, so you never can show doubt, fear and anxiety, but at home, of course, all the fear comes out and whatever you're struggling with, and it's always like this, and if anyone says it's not, then they're lying.”
When we speak, Corfixen is at his side. She says the idea to pick up the camera and shoot came to her rather spontaneously. She was talking to the film’s line producer about a behind-the-scenes documentary, and she thought she might as well be the one to do it. "I was afraid of being bored,” she admits, “just being a housewife for six months out there cause my whole life was in Denmark. I came up with the idea, basically so that I have something to do."
But in the end, no one could have captured the intimacy she does. Much of it takes place in the Bangkok hotel room shared by the couple and their two daughters, then ages 2 and 8, during the shoot. It comes across as both mundane domestic portrait, but also a psychological exploration of life with an over-worked artist. Refn offers, “It basically came out of pure desperation to tell all the women of the world…" Corfixen interrupts him with a laugh, interjecting: "enough of the housewife life."
They tease each other more than once during the interview. In the documentary Refn asks her what she thinks about his new movie, but she has not really decided what she thinks yet, which of course only encourages her husband’s doubt. Asked how she feels about Only God Forgives now, two years later, she admits, "I think it's a good film."
"She doesn't like any of my movies," Refn adds.
"That's a lie! Why do you say that? That's not true,” she says, scolding him. “That's just one of his self-doubts. It's just one of his attacks."
Prodded to be a little more specific about what she likes about Only God Forgives, she says, “I think the style and taste of it is very Nicolas. You can see where he gets all his inspiration from, even when he was young. There's just so many scenes I like in it. It's very artistic, the way it's put together. I just like it.”
Refn jumps in again, “Hence the word. She doesn't love it, but that's OK,” he adds with a laugh. “She didn't like Bronson. She thought Bronson was a bit boring. She thought Valhalla Rising was stupid.”
“She liked Drive, of course. Everyone liked that.”
“Nicolas, stop it!”
Obviously, he’s joking. It’s the kind of slightly twisted sense of humor only a long-married couple has developed a tolerance for. In the end, this level of intimacy was key for Corfixen to capture in her film. Sometimes her husband appears in the film drained after a day of shooting, either grumpy or tired, but we also see them enjoying the Cannes red carpet with their 8-year-old daughter. In the back seat of their limo, Refn complains the rain is “a bad omen.” It's his daughter who tells him "It's not" and slaps him on the leg.
Corfixen says, “I thought it would be nice for families and other women in marriages to see the downside and the good sides of all this 'cause sometimes people think, when they see our lives from the outside, oh, it's probably this red carpet and glamour and all that, so I thought it could be more personally interesting to show all the fear and the problems, and the downside of all this, and I can tell afterwards, from the response that I get from all different women that that's what they really like about the film … it's so hard to be the women behind the man because I have to be there for the family, but I also want a career myself. I just realized how many women are in that position. I got a lot of emails and people who come up to me in the street that say, ‘I know exactly.’”
My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn opens exclusively in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, 1130 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, on Friday, May 1; 305-673-4567; mbcinema.com. On Saturday, May 2, MBC will have a live Skype Q&A with Nicolas Winding Refn and Liv Corfixen after the screening of the film. Tickets to all screenings cost $12, $10 for students and $9 for MBC members.
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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos (indieethos.com) if not in New Times.