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Cannes: 'Drive's' Nicolas Refn keeps steering toward the bizarre

May 19, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
(FilmDistrict )

CANNES — The movie with the Nazi martial-arts fight and drag queens dressed as clowns had just ended when Nicolas Winding Refn, giddy with excitement, or as giddy as droll Danes get, leaned forward in his seat and initiated a rousing round of applause.

The director he was cheering, the auteur-of-the-absurd Alejandro Jodorowsky, was sitting in front of Refn at the Cannes premiere of Jodorowsky’s new film, titled “La Danza de la Realidad.” Refn soon bounded to his feet, hugged the octogenarian and kept the clapping going for nearly 10 minutes.

“Nobody else makes movies that is the closest thing to going to a museum,” Refn explained later.  "Who’d have the [guts] to shoot someone and have canaries come out of their body? When Jodorowsky’s gone, that it. End of an era.”

PHOTOS: The scene at Cannes Film Festival 2013

That may only be partly true. With his recent work, Refn is trying to keep Jodorowsky’s legacy alive. The Dane’s new movie, a Thai revenge Western titled “Only God Forgives,” world-premieres in competition at Cannes on Wednesday.  Famously independent-minded, Refn nonetheless sought notes from the Chilean and dedicates the film to him. This after what the "Drive" director says, in what may or may not be a classic bit of Refn deadpan exaggeration, he “christened me his spiritual son, where he rubbed my head and did all these magical things.”

If Refn’s new work offers a more subdued palette and brooding tone than your typical Jodorowsky movie, it also has a similar sense of stylistic purposefulness.

“I wanted every scene to have its own DNA,” Refn, 42, said of his new movie, which the boutique label Radius brings out day-and-date on July 19 after a groundswell of Internet interest. “I wanted it to be like a Jodorowsky film.”

For those who discovered Refn with his 2011 Ryan Gosling sensation “Drive,” his new effort may be a surprise. But before he was staging backward car chases, reviving the career of Albert Brooks and scoring automobile excursions up the L.A. River with electropop tunes, Refn was making foreign-set blood operas like “Bronson” and the “Pusher” trilogy.

Though the new film, which ladles on nearly as much Freudian psychology as it does violence, stars Gosling, it swings back in the direction of that earlier work. With its fetishistic tone, “Only God Forgives” puts atmosphere and theme ahead of story, though there’s some of the latter too.

CHEAT SHEET: Cannes Film Festival 2013 trailers

Julian (Gosling) is a garden-variety drug dealer running a Muay Thai gym in Bangkok. When his brother is killed by a crime boss (Vithaya Pansringarm), he opts not to exact revenge, prompting Julian’s domineering mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to fly in to town and harangue her son for, at which point the story goes from not only being bloody but Oedipal.

As with other trademark Refn works--indeed, film fans and industry players have taken to using his name as a shorthand, as in, 'so-and-so is like a Canadian Refn'"--there is a stillness on the surface that is interrupted by, and masks, a violent unease underneath. It's like Monet if Monet observed bloody bodies instead of water-lilies. (It should also be noted that Gosling says so little here it makes the taciturn toothpick-ness of “Drive” look like Cicero.)

Through its highly stylized shots — red lanterns are a big theme — there’s a sense that what’s happening in “Forgives” could have happened anywhere, or may not have happened at all.

“I wanted to make a film that walked between mysticism and reality, but it could never be an equation,” Refn said. “The film must never be conscious of its own language.”

Refn is sipping a lemon-flavored beverage at the well-known terrace restaurant of this city’s Carlton Hotel. Many directors have dined here chatting with reporters — Tarantino, Scorsese, Polanski. Yet it’s hard to imagine too many of them taking the kind of approach to interviews as Refn, who can go from arch to thoughtful and back again in the, well, pull of a trigger.

“I really don’t have an interest in reality because it’s not pornographic to me; it doesn’t excite me. Heightened reality excites me,” said the director, who has a tendency to describe much of his movies, and the world, in erotic terms.

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