This is the ninth article in in the series, where TCG Nordica every week introduce a famous Scandinavian artist’s life and work.
Being born to parents both involved in filmmaking it is perhaps not surprising that Nicolas Winding Refn should end up making movies. Writing and directing your first full blown film at the age of 24 is however, by any standard impressive. And what a film it was!
Pusher (1996) was originally a five-minute short film that Refn made to get into the prestigious Danish Film School. It was shown on an obscure local television station, and some producers saw it. When they afterwards approach Refn and offered the funding to make it into a feature-length film, he accepted, and dropped out of the film school, before he had even started. The result was a gangster film that follows a week in the life of Copenhagen drug dealer Frank, as he digs himself into an ever-deeper hole. It received high praise from critics and became a big success both in Denmark and abroad.
In Pusher Refn wanted to show the Copenhagen crime world in a realistic way and so the movie was shot mainly outdoors, using only handheld cameras (this strategy also fitted well with the small budget). Some of the minor actors where criminals themselves. The harsh, unglamorous, in-your-face movie became a classic, and both an Indian and a British remake where made in 2010 and 2012 respectively.
By going his own way Refn and thus succeeded spectacularly, but as he himself admits it also gave him highthoughts about himself: “I became improbably arrogant to be together with, because I believed I could walk on the water, and there was no humility.” This reflected on his next movie Bleeder (1999) and the English language Fear X (2003), that, in spite of acceptable reviews, both were economic failures, and left Refn with a huge debt.
To get out of this debt Refn made to sequels to Pusher, Pusher II (2004) and Pusher III (2005). Refn who had wanted to make art movies, and didn’t want to make Pusher into a franchise always insists that he only did it for the money (“I hated to make the movies”), but the movies were warmly received, and they doesn’t feel like mere cash grabs: On the contrary they strikes out a new way of making sequels, with the main roles in the sequels being minor roles in the previous movies.
This taught the young auteur what he says is the only rule when making films: It has to make money. It doesn’t mean that he makes movies for the money, but rather that without money there will be no movies: “The money is not more important than the movie itself, but it goes hand in hand. As an artist I’m a slave, and I have to buy my freedom.” It also means that there are no other rules. There is no right or wrong when it comes to the story, style and the way of making the movie.
This becomes clear when watching his next movies Bronson (2008) and Valhalla Rising (2009) in which Refn finds his own style (“Refn-esque”), characterized by striking visuals and sound, graphic violence, exploration of extreme masculinity, and long shots without much dialogue.
This style was developed in Refn’s greatest international success Drive (2011), which won a plethora of awards, including the Best Director at Cannes. It made him famous in the USA and opened up the doors to Hollywood for Refn, with talk of him directing both the superhero epic Wonder Woman and the James Bond movie Spectre. For whatever reason it never happened, and one can speculate that one of the reasons at least is that the money bag attached to such grand productions also come with restrictions, and Refn always wants to go his own way.
Instead he makes advertisements for companies such as Gucci and H&M and this way “buys his freedom” to make the movies he wants to make. And indeed, the two movies (Only God Forgives (2013) and The Neon Demon (2016)) and one TV-show (Too Old to Die Young (2019)) has not been as great commercial successes as Drive was. In these creations Refn’esque trademarks mentioned above are taken to extremes, that has proven too much for a broader audience. A critique often levelled at his work is that they are slow “for the sake of it”, but the impression of slowness is an illusion created by scarce cutting and dialogue – the story moves at a “normal” speed. The lack of dialogue does on the other hand call for concentration when watching his movies. Because written and spoken language is the most unlimited form of communication we have, it is also the most limiting. By leaving things unsaid, Refn leaves an endless amount of possibilities open and stimulates us as viewers to participate in the creation of the film ourselves. Also, Refn himself being word-blind, he has a natural tendency to communicate through other means than words.
On an interesting note, that at first might seem contradictory when watching Refn’s colourful neon-showered later work, he himself is colour-blind, but this of course is the very reason for these striking visuals: “I can’t see mid-colors. That’s why all my films are very contrasted, if it were anything else I couldn’t see it.”
Several of Nicolas Winding Refn’s movie can be found on streaming services like iQiy and Youku.
Text文: Skjold Andreas Arendt