“I’ve spent three years making this film, and I don’t really know what it’s about,” director Nicolas Winding Refn admits, head bowed as he sits on the edge of his bed, contemplating the agony and ecstasy of making Only God Forgives.
Coming off Drive, his most commercial and acclaimed work, it can’t have been easy for Refn to jump headlong into another project, despite knowing from the get-go that it wouldn’t even slightly resemble his last. The director’s musings and misery as he faces the possibility of disappointing a newly galvanized (and much expanded) fanbase serve as the meat and potatoes of My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, a brisk, 58-minute documentary made Hearts of Darkness-style by Refn’s wife, Liv Corfixen.
Whether Corfixen set out to make a home video or always intended to explore her husband’s painful creative process is unclear. But what she’s pulled together in My Life Directed is a compelling, deeply interesting portrait of life for a veritable auteur who is trapped by his own ambition. Refn’s visual style has been the subject of many dissertations and lengthy YouTube analyses, and this documentary imparts the additional knowledge that he broods over his film’s narrative elements just as intently, despite lacking the clarity to always nail them to the wall.
My Life Directed begins as Refn hauls Corfixen and their two children to Bangkok for what will be an arduous, six-month shoot. It’s a big move for the family, requiring them to pull their kids out of school and move into a 42nd-floor apartment in a country they don’t know. And the pressure that puts on both Corfixen – who balances child-rearing, filming this doc and supporting her husband – and Refn – whose constant ambivalence about Only God Forgives is compounded by his growing fear that he’s throwing away six months of his loved ones’ lives – is plain to see.
As the woman behind the camera, Corfixen proves an astute documentarian, asking hard questions of her husband that let us inside his tormented head and catching him at times when his struggles are most easily visible. She often pauses on his face, watching as he silently wrestles with a production that is moving steadily beyond his grasp. His eyes, alternately filled with excitement, optimism, bewilderment and exasperation, express the tremendous pressures of this production all on their own.
Refn’s ideas are interesting, to be sure; in one scene, he equates the film’s excessive violence to sex, saying that “it’s all in the build-up” as part of a rambling, unspecific explanation that loses everyone listening, including him. It’s the execution that gets away from him. The emotions written across Refn’s face will be familiar to any writer – the frustration of feeling great ideas, even the great idea, floating around in the ether of the mind, just far enough out of reach that it defies every attempt at articulation. “Now make it dirty, unique, interesting, never-seen-before and violent,” he asks star Ryan Gosling in one pivotal action sequence. Such passionate yet vague instructions betray a man still grappling to understand the very story he’s decided to try to tell.
My Life Directed doesn’t really dig deep into why Refn decided to make Only God Forgives his next movie after Drive, nor the divisive critical reception it eventually received. In regard to the latter, all we really get to see is Refn reading aloud a particularly scathing, albeit childishly written, review from Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells. Suffice to say, some of the reviews Only God Forgives received only validated Refn’s torturous indecision over its every frame in his mind.
Would the director have made a better movie had he simply gone with his original vision, never doubting, never fretting, never attempting to trick his wife into criticizing the movie so he wouldn’t have to do it himself? No one will ever know. That question, and the bigger ones it descends from, make My Life Directed a deeply engrossing watch. One just wishes it was longer and covered more ground, especially given how intimately tied the doc’s director is to Refn.
The documentary at least cements Refn’s status as one of the most interesting directors working today. “It would be boring if we all just made safe films,” he proclaims at the Cannes premiere for Only God Forgives. Later, the director reflects, “That’s when you know you have made great cinema, when half love it and half hate it.”
From this viewer’s perspective, it seems Refn may believe in the first statement more whole-heartedly than the second. The singular challenges of making Only God Forgives brought an arthouse director riding high on the breakthrough success of Drive crashing back down to Earth – and My Life Directed doesn’t hide how much that fall must hurt. Even if Refn believes that the world needs directors who take leaps of faith (his admiration for cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky is openly stated), the jury’s still out on whether he believes in himself enough to be comfortable as one of those directors.
Maybe, for that reason, Refn needed Only God Forgives. The implication hangs in the air that the production, for all the hell it put Refn and his family through, was a sort of creative crucible for the director – that, having endured it, he can look toward future projects without fear of letting fans down or losing his edge.
Indeed, in the film’s final moments, he appears eager to jet off again, to try something new with Corfixen and their children at his side. In a way, the ending of My Life Directed both inspires and unsettles – inspires in that it lays bare Refn’s undying love for the creation of cinema, a love so total that even a project which brings him to the brink of self-destruction can’t kill it; and unsettles in that it suggests Corfixen and Refn’s children have accepted a secondary place in their patriarch’s heart. Being a director as brilliant as Refn comes at a heavy cost, the documentary says. But who pays it more? The man himself, or the people he brings along for every bumpy, blistering ride?
Brief but insightful, My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn is a compelling account of a modern auteur struggling to commit his ambitious yet agonizingly abstract ideas to celluloid.