It’s no big secret that both success and failure tend to mess with the minds of artists working in the public eye. Filmmakers, faced with critical and commercial expectations beyond their control, often fall into this uneasy camp. So it’s no surprise that, in the documentary “My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn,” the Danish filmmaker comes across as heavily self-involved and terrified of failure. Those qualities are intensified by the timeline of the movie, directed by the Refn’s wife Liv Corfixen, which finds Refn high on his popularity and on the brink of hitting a wall.
Chronicling the production history of her husband’s poorly received followup to his smash hit “Drive,” the widely reviled, ultra-bloody high art pastiche “Only God Forgives,” Corfixen finds her husband in the exact state of mind that one might expect — nervous about his next move and obsessed with his quest for perfection. Unlike other non-fiction entries based around misconceived film productions — “Lost in La Mancha,” the story of Terry Gilliam’s unfinished “Don Quixote” treatment, and the “Apocalypse Now” chronicle “Hearts of Darkness” chief among them — Corfixen’s insightful hourlong portrait takes a far more personal view of its subject.
That’s ultimately to the credit of the movie’s delicate, focused approach, which explores both Refn’s neurotic state of uncertainty and its impact on his marriage. Corfixen doesn’t touch on the bigger picture of the movie’s failures, but conveys a degree of intimacy with the topic usually buried by sensationalist headlines.
“I’m worried about repeating myself,” Refn says early on, in the midst of hauling his wife and young children to Bangkok for a six month shoot. There’s a certain wearisome cliché associated with watching the director whine about his aspirations time and again, but Corfixen’s diary-like approach to the proceedings give her husband’s frustrations a down-to-earth quality. Spotted in a reflection early on, Corfixen’s presence behind the camera adds an element of meta commentary to the story, which extends beyond the gradual disappointment of the production to touch on Refn’s warring passions: On the one hand, he’s a committed family man, who squeezes in time to entertain his children and speak tenderly with his wife in between stressful production meetings; at the same time, his self-mythologizing tendencies threaten to overwhelm his priorities.
In one telling scene, “Only God Forgives” star Ryan Gosling pays a visit to Refn and listens as the director launches on a meandering explanation of his vision for the movie’s excessive violence, going so far as to equate it to sex. Refn’s insistence on reaching for a colorful metaphor transforms into a performance itself, and Gosling calls him on it, turning to the camera and smirking. “You get all that?” he says, and Refn’s pained reaction shows the extent to which he’s trapped by his own ambition.
The global popularity of his previous collaboration with Gosling hangs over each scene, intensifying the shadow of imminent bad days ahead. “I don’t want to be the ‘Drive’ guy forever,” he says. Refn’s limited ability to contemplate his legacy registers as more melancholic than deranged, and his egotistical desire mainly seems petty. Shuttling between locations, losing his temper on set and babbling about his intentions back home, he constantly digs himself a deeper grave and then, in the movie’s perceptive final moments as the bad reviews stream in, essentially lies in it.
Though it’s not a detailed peek behind the scenes, “My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn” does include some intriguing moments involving the overall production struggles that Refn endures in order to make his distinctly non-commercial film. By virtue of his wife’s first-rate access, we witness Refn’s need to hustle every step of the way: He asks Gosling to join him for a special “Drive” screening so they can collect a $40,000 fee to boost their limited budget; on set, he struggles to explain his trying approach to narrative, which includes a baffling decision during one bit to have his actors move in slow motion. Coaching Kristen Scott Thomas’ through her memorably gory death scene, Refn announces his desire to “make it dirty, unique, never-seen-before and violent.”
Such empty, freewheeling concepts help to explain the confounding project that eventually came out of the experience: “Only God Forgives” was Refn’s attempt to go the extra mile and challenge viewers with the antithesis to the crowd-pleasing aspects of his previous outings. But he’s never fully capable of finding clarity to match his drive.
Corfixen’s filmmaking technique is largely straightforward, but when she relies on a contemplative score and pauses to watch her husband’s expression as the production slowly moves beyond his grasp, “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn” manages to both pity and reject his hubris. When he reaches the finish line and concludes that the outcome “isn’t good enough,” as rage fills his eyes, it’s clear that no matter what the rest of the world thinks, Refn is his own worst critic.
While this observation speaks volumes about the pressures of the industry, it’s certainly nothing groundbreaking — despite the novelty of witnessing a dud in the making, Corfixen gives us few surprises. It’s only when she digs into the impact of her husband’s commitments on their marriage that the movie suggests a more profound subtext. In an idiosyncratic exchange with the filmmaker Alejandro Jodoworsky — for whom Refn expresses his admiration in the recent documentary “Jodoworsky’s Dune” — the cult Chilean director reads Corfixen’s fortune and digs into the profound challenges of living in the service of another creative mind.
She’s the only one with the ability to see beyond his insecurities and inject a voice of reason into his life, but it comes at the expense of her own stability. “Why do they have to be so mean?” Refn says after reading a voracious takedown of his movie by Hollywood Elsewhere blogger Jeffrey Wells. “In a way,” she responds, “you asked for it.” Corfixen puts the movie’s failings in a better context than any of the pans preceding it. The ironic outcome is a movie more insightful than the project at its center.
“My Life According to Nicolas Winding Refn” premiered last weekend at Fantastic Fest. No U.S. distributor has been announced.
READ MORE: Nicolas Winding Refn On the Tepid Cannes Reaction to ‘Only God Forgives’ and Why ‘Silence is Cinema!’