Nicolas Winding Refn. Photo: Irene Cho
This blog post was originally published during the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Only God Forgives opens at Film Society on July 19. Nicolas Winding Refn will be in person for one of our free Summer Talks on Sunday, July 14 and will present a sneak preview of the film on Wednesday, July 17.
One of the most divisive films of this year's Cannes competition was also one of the most anticipated. Nicholas Winding Refn woke up the 2011 festival with his film Drive and this year he returned with Only God Forgives, a Thailand-set thriller that again stars Ryan Gosling.
In this film, Refn pairs Gosling with a mother figure, played by Kristin Scott Thomas.
"I always had this idea of the evil—of the prime evil being a woman, the feminine, almost the antagonist to Julian’s protagonist," Refn explained, detailing the character play by Thomas. "And there was a mother and son theme, of course, which was very much rooted in Greek mythology and Oedipus, which is a theme that haunts every man ever since time began and will for the rest of time stands."
Reactions to Refn's stylish, violent new movie were all over the map. He seems unfazed by the response and is embracing the polarized reactions to his new movie.
"The pleasure’s all mine," he told FilmLinc Daily Buzz last week, sitting down for a conversation about his new film on the roof of the Marriott hotel in Cannes. "Hating something is equally as close as it is to loving it, like loving it is equally as close as hating it. And you know, for me, knowing that my movie has penetrated the audience to an extent where they feel violated, either of joy or of horror, I know that it will never leave them. And, hopefully, that will make their lives a little more interesting."
Only God Forgives is a continuation of themes and ideas Refn has been exploring in recent work, he explained during the Cannes interview. He sees a link between the film, 2011's Drive and 2009's Valhalla Rising.
"All three movies are very much about silent cinema language and they’re all rooted in this kind of fairy tale world in between Heaven and Hell," Refn detailed. "Because they’re all taken out of a real context."
The absence of sound is a key element to consider in these movie, Refn reiterated during the interview.
"The element that the three movies very much have in common is silence, because silence is magical," Refn elaborated. "And silence forces the audience to fill in the sound of blanks. Just like, if you structure a film differently, the audience is forced to add in their own equations. That’s when art becomes interesting, because it forces the audience to involve themselves. Now, that can frustrate people. It can make them angry. It can make them happy. It can give them joy, frustration. They can hate it. But we’re fucking together, you know? And that, to me, is the joy. And silence makes us uncomfortable. And that’s what makes it interesting."
He said that while he's exploring distinct stories in each of the three movies, there are also some other similarities.
"The themes are different from each film, but some of the thematics seem to reappear through each movie," Refn continued. "And the irony is that the reactions that I get have been the same for all three movies. And it seems that every time, when time passes, everyone forgets how much they hated it because they ended up loving it."
It was clear that Refn was far from bothered by the range of reactions to Only God Forgives when we spoke in Cannes, near the end of the festival.
"In the end, the only thing you want is to touch people," he said.