Review: My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
PLOT: Having enjoyed worldwide success with his neo-noir DRIVE, director Nicolas Winding Refn tackles a much different journey with his follow-up film, ONLY GOD FORGIVES, while his wife documents the highs and lows of the production.
REVIEW: MY LIFE DIRECTED BY NICOLAS WINDING REFN (sometimes referred to as simply "My Life Directed") is my favorite kind of documentary: the kind examining the agony and the ecstasy of making a movie. Naturally, anyone who loves the cinema will be interested in the behind-the-scenes drama that goes on; making a movie is a draining, often impossible-seeming undertaking, but on the best of days a heavenly feeling permeates the set. This doc, which examines Nicolas Winding Refn as he embarks on his surreal, inscrutable follow-up to DRIVE, the Bangkok-set thriller ONLY GOD FORGIVES, predominantly focuses on the agony part. And it's just as morbidly fascinating to watch as one could (guiltily?) hope for.
The godfather (pun intended) of movie documentaries is HEARTS OF DARKNESS, which saw the tumultuous production of Francis Ford Coppola's nightmarish Vietnam epic APOCALYPSE NOW predominantly from the perspective of Coppola's wife, Eleanor. MY LIFE DIRECTED has earned comparisons to HEARTS because it takes the same POV: Refn's put-upon wife, Liv Corfixen, documents her husband as he moves the whole family (they have two children) to Thailand for six months to work on his weird new film. In both cases we see the public face of the outwardly-confidant director collapse, replaced by expressions of doubt, fear, immaturity and depression. The toll of making a movie that is getting away from him not only weighs heavily on the artist, but his loved ones too, and the further into his fractured vision he goes, the more his assurance it's a failure becomes.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES came right on the heels of DRIVE, which was both an artistic and commercial success for Refn, who had previously enjoyed plaudits from the arthouse crowd almost exclusively. DRIVE won Refn the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, became an instant-classic with film geeks and put Refn on the radar as a very important filmmaker to watch. Refn, whose public persona is that of the affected, too-cool-for-school auteur, embraced the love he received for DRIVE while also feeling the impulse to fight against it, leading him to craft a hyper-weird creation that is ONLY GOD FORGIVES. From the first moments of MY LIFE DIRECTED, we see Refn's self-doubt already eating away at him, as the man appears simultaneously determined not to make DRIVE 2 and worried that his latest won't be accepted by his newfound fans. We can assume almost every artist is unsure of his or herself at one point or another, but seeing Refn morosely brood for 90% of the documentary is compelling in an indescribable way. (On a personal note, I've met Refn twice and both times he exuded the casual, cocksure attitude he's come to be associated with, not a hint of insecurity to be found.)
For her part, Corvixen plays both the supportive wife and aggressive documentarian looking for answers, turning the camera on the director and prying him for answers: why is he depressed, how did the scene go today, what is going wrong? We don't receive much insight into why Refn has chosen this particular story to tell after DRIVE, but we do quickly comprehend that he understands it as little as eventual audiences would. ("I've spent three years making this film and I don't really know what it's about," he moans.) In amusing moments, he frustratingly attempts to explain his ideas to his star Ryan Gosling, who just as clearly doesn't "get it"; based on Gosling's wry expression half of the time he's with Refn, we discover the only person who might actually take the director completely seriously is the man himself. And perhaps that's part of his frustration.
Yet for all its honesty, MY LIFE DIRECTED still comes up a little short on true drama. (It's not even close to being as explosive as HEARTS OF DARKNESS.) An odd thing about it is the runtime: 60 minutes. It's quite perplexing that it's so short; there must be so much more to explore. One explanation for its brevity could be Refn; at one point in the movie, his wife softly complains that he won't allow her to film when there's a "crisis" on set. From what we can gather, there are indeed plenty of crises on set, as indicated by the director's perpetually sullen mood and frequent whining fits. Even the film's rocky reception at its initial Cannes Film Festival screening isn't shown or talked about, and while a somewhat bemused Refn reads a scathing review aloud the next day, the primarily negative/disappointed reaction to Only God Forgives is more or less ignored.
But this is their movie, and this is what they want us to see. In the last moments, which show Liv and Nicolas exchange pronouncements of love and understanding, we recognize MY LIFE DIRECTED is more about Liv's determination to stick close to her difficult hubby while he eagerly pursues whatever project he's working on. (We see, in those final moments, that he's already itching to leave home again and start something anew.) It's a bittersweet note the film strikes, as one half of the couple comes to grips with the fact that she may not ever quite be the other half's true love.
|Extra Tidbit:||The film opens in select theaters, and is available on all VOD platforms and iTunes on Friday, February 27th|