Call Him Mister Ego, by Craig Schroeder
Nicolas Winding Refn is a vibrant filmmaker who, at his best (Bronson), uses his flamboyant style to brilliantly complement his narrative and, at his worst (Only God Forgives), is hindered by his slavish devotion to formalism which eclipses anything of substance. But all of his films have a common thread: they’re fixated on the most primal urges of masculinity. My assumption of Refn, the man–a chest-puffed, TAPOUT shirt-wearing macho man’s man–is entirely influenced by his work as a director. The new documentary My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn, directed by Refn’s wife Liv Corfixen, shows that the director is not at all like the emotionally-stunted brutes he puts forth in his films. His celluloid masculine ideals are not reflections of himself, but are the hyper-masculinized fantasies of a sensitive man.
Framed around the filming and release of Only God Forgives, My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn is an often shallow peak inside Refn’s infinitely fascinating creative process. Refn, Liv Crofixen, and their brood of small children moved into a penthouse in Bangkok for the filming of Only God Forgives – a trite piece of shock-cinema that was meticulously composed and groomed despite being as narratively interesting as a game of tic-tac-toe and boasting characters as fully realized as a bar napkin will allow. Any criticism I or any other person may have towards Refn’s film, is criticism he himself toiled over throughout the shooting process. Coming off of the commercial and critical success of Drive – a film whose appeal is driven largely by a great soundtrack and the impossibly cool veneer draped over an otherwise boring actor – Refn spends the entirety of My Life worrying about the film’s shortcomings and how it will stack-up to its predecessor.
The film is at its strongest when it’s documenting the emotional free-fall of a director whose films roil with self-assured, macho bullshit. But despite Refn’s compelling and often heart-breaking tendency towards self-doubt, the film itself fails to be as consistently engaging as its subject. Liv Corfixen has a fairly uneven hand at guiding the film’s examination of her husband. At times she does a remarkable job of objectively examining Refn’s process – at one point offering a hideously awkward pause at the question “what do you think of the film?” But by its conclusion, Corfixen’s directorial hand can be felt guiding the film towards a superficial, satisfying conclusion; even going so far as rewriting history: ending the film on a note of success when it premiered at Cannes, where, in actuality, the film was poorly received and even booed.
Refn’s arduous and painful process is a fascinating watch. But My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn can’t quite find the film’s beating heart. Offering up fairly banal “making-of” footage (and, yes, Ryan Gosling is as boring behind the scenes as he is in front of the camera), My Life spends far too much of its scant fifty-seven minute runtime meandering around the periphery of its fascinating subject. If pared down, it could be a fascinating short film; but as it exists now, it’s merely an average documentary that should probably have been relegated to the Only God Forgives DVD extras.