Brutally intimate and oftentimes uncomfortable, My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn peeks into the personal life of its namesake director during his turbulent experience filming the critical flop Only God Forgives. The diary-like documentary, shot by the Danish auteur’s wife Liv Corfixen, sews together scenes of a man burdened by his fear of failure as well as his own desperate ambition.
Rarely are audiences allowed so close to the artistic core of a production, beyond polished featurettes and staged interviews and a few scattered behind-the-scenes photos. With her camera, Corfixen paints a cheerless portrait of a director laden with glaringly apparent personal demons gnawing at the well-being of both his professional and family life. We see Refn’s creative obsession overwhelm his responsibilities as a father and a husband, feel the resentment hanging between Refn and Corfixen, and sense the tension Refn carries as he fails to grasp the essence of Only God Forgives.
Refn’s brittle faith in his 2013 film is haunted, all the while, by his previous cult hit Drive – a movie both glorified and loathed by its director. On the one hand it epitomizes his commercial success; on the other, it undermines his confidence, representing an unattainable standard that he must impossibly repeat.
Only God Forgives proves a slippery and vague story for the director to pin down, with even Refn admitting how it is a project he has endeavored on for three years, and yet has no idea what it’s actually about. His muddled vision leads him to equally muddled moments in filmmaking; at one point, Refn preps actress Kristin Scott Thomas by telling her to make her performance “dirty, unique, interesting, never seen before and sexy.” In another sequence, he attempts to explain the meaning of the violence in Only God Forgives to Ryan Gosling, but winds up delivering a convoluted speech, ultimately comparing it to sex.
Meanwhile the production budget continues to nosedive, forcing him to haggle and trade press time for cold hard cash in order to back a project that he doesn’t fully understand. While the experience of filming saps both financial and emotional resources, Corfixen finds herself wedged between sympathy and frustration as her husband’s film overtakes his life.
Even as Refn’s wife, Corfixen remains an outsider looking in, observing his emotional deterioration as if held at a distance. In some moments, the distance between the couple becomes a chasm, revealing the documentary to be as much an observation on their strained relationship as it is an exposé on the filmmaker’s production woes.
Corfixen’s role in the production experience begins as an apologist and observer. Upon seeking the advice of friend, fellow filmmaker, and spiritual mentor Alejandro Jodorowsky, she becomes designated emotional support as well. But her legitimacy as an objective party, as well as her perspective as a sympathetic partner, quickly fluctuates as she becomes a victim of Refn’s erratic moods; halfway through the production, Corfixen cannot contain her feelings of bitterness and stress any longer. “This film is about you, not me,” Corfixen cries in an emotionally charged moment. Refn responds: “It’s about us.”
Yet without a doubt, My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn is – much like the couple’s home life – singularly focused around him. Unsatisfied with her husband’s extended absences due to his film shoots, Corfixen uproots herself and her children temporarily to Bangkok, putting a halt on their lives in order to maintain her family unit. This move, however, does little to halt the isolation and detachment her husband undergoes during filming. Corfixen is given a choice: accept her “spiritual” role as her husband’s helper, despite its constrictiveness, or allow herself the freedom to pursue her own life.
My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn boldly confesses the passionate nature of Refn as a man and as a filmmaker, managing to peel back the glamorous façade of film business and bare the unpleasant truths of Refn and Corfixen’s relationship. But as a documentary, it proves to be essentially a string of scenes involving the common existential insecurities of any artist, and the result is a film that trails after its namesake without a discernable purpose.
As evidenced by Refn, the mind of an artist can be a self-devouring and self-loathing thing. While the documentary loyally captures this torment, it constantly teeters between delight and crippling doubt along with with its subject, and these severe mood swings become unpredictable and daunting. As Refn painfully strives to conceive and create the ideas itching at his mind, the viewer is taken on an emotional rollercoaster…except instead of an exciting thrill ride, this one leaves you more seasick and sad.
Narratively, the documentary is as unstable and unsure of itself as Refn’s vacillating temper. The camera serves merely as binoculars, providing a first person POV of Corfixen’s frustration and powerlessness against a man sinking into depression. With the objectivity of the movie breached so early on, the narrative voice consequently becomes muddled, struggling to communicate a concrete, focused idea. Although this flux between sympathy and antagonism and melancholy could be an abstract, poetic interpretation of the couple’s relationship, the film instead comes to resemble an unsolvable, shifting puzzle.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
While one is able to tease out a few subtle themes within My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn, the movie buries these complexities under the weight of its own emotional confusion. The documentary follows Refn during production just as Corfixen is obligated to follow him in life, mirroring the dynamics of their relationship as well as Corfixen’s sense of discouragement as a professional woman, as a mother, and as a wife. Her perspective on the 2013 production achieves the proper intimacy needed to observe Refn’s behavior as a filmmaker and family man, but as insightful as her observations may be, My Life has as little force and resonance beyond its form as the page in a diary.