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Get to Know the Real Nicolas Winding Refn, Warts and All, in His Wife’s New Doc

Get to Know the Real Nicolas Winding Refn, Warts and All, in His Wife's New Doc

Liv Corfixen chronicles the making of her husband’s critically skewered 2013 “Drive” followup “Only God Forgives,” an under-appreciated film that I suspect and hope (perhaps in vain) will blossom over time. If you haven’t seen “Only God Forgives,” it’s like if David Lynch took quaaludes and directed a spaghetti Western in Thailand.

A sort of extended making-of doc, “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn” is a fascinating portrait of the artist and his anxieties, closing in on Refn’s masochistic need to deliver greatness by reproducing the international success of “Drive,” his 2011 Cannes smash that won him Best Director and $75 million at the box office.

“I’ve spent three years making this film and I don’t know what it’s about,” Refn opines in one of the opening sections in which Corfixen gives us a glimpse at their shared world, with their two adorable blond children along for the ride in Bangkok, where “Only God Forgives” was shot.

The documentary opens with Refn receiving a tarot card reading from who else but Alejandro Jodorowsky—to whom “Only God Forgives” was dedicated—whose turning of the cards augurs artistic success in Refn’s future. Then Jodorowsky turns to Corfixen, who’s behind the camera. “Who do you want him to be?” She says she wants a family man, but also an artist. So how do you reconcile the two?

This loose and leisurely hour-long film– akin to Vivian Kubrick’s “The Making of ‘The Shining'” in its meandering and self-consciously nepotistic way it asks the question “Who is this man when he is done being an artist?” — dives into the thin schism between husband/father and filmmaker. 

“Only God Forgives” was a revenge tragedy of Greek proportions that failed to live up to the hype, suffering jeers and boos upon its Cannes 2013 premiere and derided by critics in spite of a glowing central performance from Kristin Scott Thomas as a cigarette-wielding matriarch locked in a chilling Oedipal relation with her violent son Julian (played by Gosling). And as revealed in his wife’s film, Refn felt the burden of the fact that so many writers were calling him and Gosling “a classic duo.” Refn did not want to be remembered simply as the man who directed “Drive” just as fellow Dane Lars von Trier is not remembered as “The guy who directed ‘Breaking the Waves.'”

How much is Refn performing for the camera here, knowing that his wife’s documentary picture of him may rejigger public perception of him, and how much is he actually being candid? We don’t know. But the man seems genuinely frightened at the looming prospect of finishing the $4 million “Only God Forgives,” a petulant child perched at the maw of despair in his hotel room, often unable to lift himself out of bed. The documentary, with its exclusive behind-closed-doors glimpse at Refn’s process away from the camera, reveals the director’s crippling lack of confidence in making the film he wanted to make. 

But Corfixen doesn’t skirt the fact that she’s his wife, and that she’s the one directing this. The title is a cheeky jab. Does she feel her life really is directed by him? His family members have packed up their lives and followed him to Bangkok for a risky all-or-nothing project.

“I do the laundry and the grocery shopping and I film this,” she says to Refn. Behind every great man there is the burden of supporting that great man.

Corfixen also gets in the face of Refn’s prickly on-set behavior, re-shooting take after take and going long into the night without wanting to send his cast to lunch. But his obsessiveness–even his dickishness–is certainly rooted, as the film presupposes, in artistic insecurity and fear of failure. Aren’t all directors like this? Refn is not nearly tyrannical as the lot of them, but “My Life” shows that a filmmaker’s domineering tendencies come from a place of self-doubt within their own foundering ego.

Ryan Lattanzio is a staff writer for TOH at Indiewire. Follow him on Twitter @ryanlattanzio.

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