Nicolas Winding Refn worked steadily before achieving any kind of mainstream appreciation, and even when he achieved just that, it felt like a minor score. His movies are sometimes damnably arty, but infused with a kicky, stylistic verve that can appeal to broad audiences. You could tell that Refn was steeped in the kind of films that art house audiences might not have been familiar with. His work willfully combines disparate influences to create a wholly intoxicating new concoction. They also share a kind of barely contained rage. “Drive,” his first commercial hit, cemented him as a director to watch and made all of his bloody obsessions palpable (and won him a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival). But as a public figure, Refn has remained goofy and affable. If something darker lurked inside, he never showed it. Which is what makes “My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn” both fascinating and disappointing — it’s directed by his wife Liv Corfixen, but at the movie’s conclusion we don’t get the sense that we know him any better than we did before.
The primary motivation for the documentary seems to be boredom. Refn moved his wife and two young daughters to Bangkok for the filming of his 2013 underground boxing movie, “Only God Forgives,” and Corfixen, stuck in a strange new city with two kids and very little to do, decided to document the process of making the movie. The result is an easily digestible hour-long documentary that ultimately doesn’t make a case for itself other than perhaps being a really fascinating extra feature on another movie’s Blu-ray.
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Corfixen does capture Refn at some vulnerable moments. Much of the film is devoted to the director fretting about following up “Drive,” his one moment of crossover success, with a project that wouldn’t be as successful (it doesn’t help that “Only God Forgives” would once again feature a star turn by Ryan Gosling and that he chose to shoot the film in the only city containing more seedy neon lights than Los Angeles). At every turn, Refn second-guesses himself and ponders reaction to the movie, even before a frame of the film had been shot. For an artist who is often portrayed as someone who doesn’t factor into commercial respectability, Refn spends an awful lot of time pondering how audiences will respond to the film and its eventual critical reception (later, he hilariously reads a scathing, post-Cannes review of the film by Jeff Wells).
Elsewhere, the movie lacks any real insight. Refn gets frustrated and occasionally acts out. He is impatient during a shot and must be painstakingly redressed and, during the movie’s post-production, he admits that he could be killing himself on a crushing, post-“Drive” disaster. But there isn’t much when it comes to the nitty gritty of Corfixen and Refn’s relationship, or their relationship with their two young children, who seem to have inherited their parents’ playful imagination. Never once is the content discussed, nor is a particular issue of wide interest — namely, what it is like to be married to a man so obviously intrigued by violence and anger. Corfixen remains obscured for much of the movie, happy to hide behind the camera instead of mixing it up with her husband. There is, however, a wonderfully oddball moment when legendary cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky does a tarot card reading for her. “So you think I have to divorce Nicolas in order to be free?” she asks. Jodorowsky then backtracks nimbly.
As a series of cute behind-the-scenes moments, you could do worse than “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.” There’s a moment where he’s directing Kristen Scott Thomas (already vamping it up wildly), and another where he’s trying to explain the sexual element of the film’s ultra-violence to a confused and grossed-out Gosling. But beyond that, there’s not a whole lot else to grab onto. This might be because this documentary is at least the third to be made about Refn, so Corfixen didn’t see the need to dig into the details of their relationship that have been otherwise dissected. There isn’t a single mention in the film of how the first film they saw together was “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” or a recounting of the time she threw away his toy robot collection (apparently a crushing blow). While it may be admirable that she didn’t want to repeat details discussed in other documentaries, it also makes the movie bland and context-free. If anyone were to happen upon this documentary without knowing a great deal about Refn, his filmography, or his relationship with his wife, they would be completely lost.
At the conclusion of “My Life with Nicolas Winding Refn,” there are more questions than there are answers, especially because the film only hints at the kind of critical savagery and box office indifference that met “Only God Forgives.” An earnest defense of the film by Refn and others would have been intriguing, but is not addressed, nor is Refn and Corfixen’s relationship once production was completed. Did normalcy return? Did they stay in Copenhagen? What is Refn fretting about now? None of these questions, along with countless others, are answered. This could have been one of the great, probing behind-the-scenes movie documentaries, a mini-marvel that could rest alongside “Heart of Darkness” or “Burden of Dreams.” Instead, it’s a fluffy, enjoyable, nearly-feature-length electronic press kit, with way more neuroses. [C+]