Today I was lucky enough to attend a preview screening of Refn’s new film. I don’t know what I was expecting as I walked into the cinema but I was treated to a shocking orgy of colour, gore and sound. A revenge drama turned Freudian nightmare Only God Forgives is revelatory and unsettling.
I was surprised to find that Refn himself is in fact colourblind. This film, even more than Drive, is framed in darkness and shot through with neon blue and flame red. This makes it a bizarre experience to watch as often 80% of the screen or more is taken up with blackness. The characters seem to emerge softly from this blackness like thoughts from the subconscious mind.
The soundtrack is utterly immersive. Once more Cliff Martinez has understood and heightened Refn’s visuals through surreal and haunting sound effects, exaggerated ambient noise and almost tribal club beats. The result is a raw emotional reaction which is more reminiscent of an accomplished music video than a film. The sound is not just a backing track, it is a storytelling device in it’s own right and it is exciting to see Refn develop this tool from Drive to Only God Forgives where it is far superior.
I found myself reminded throughout the film of Last Year at Marienbad. Quite apart from the surrealist blurring of reality throughout the film, the camera lingers and tracks slowly through dark, lush corridors. The main cast is surrounded by still, lifeless dolls who do not, or cannot interact with the tumult they are so close to. The true characters loom like monoliths. They are not real people, these characters; they are representations of some higher human truth. Wrath, greed, lust, motherhood. However this is not to devalue the performances of the principal cast. In what is almost entirely a silent movie these actors convey a wide range of emotion through body language alone. This is particularly true of Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, who plays the role of a young woman working as Julian’s (Ryan Gosling) escort who utters one line before becoming a symbol of displaced eroticism.
Speaking of eroticism, it is difficult to find something within this film which is not fetishized. Even a violent, bloody murder is portrayed in terms of corporeal lust. Kristin Scott Thomas as the erotic Oedipal mother figure is aggressively sexual and further sexualised by the cinematography. Her bleached blonde ringlets and leopard-print outfits make her the ultimate in hypersexuality. What makes the character so disturbing is the relationship with her son. Removed from the context many of Scott-Thomas’s lines sound as if they are being said to a lover, certainly not a family member. However this taboo seems natural in the underworld this film inhabits.
Gosling, on the other hand shows us a man caught in a dance of revenge which he neither started nor can escape. His opponent, played by Vithaya Pansringarm, is an impassive man who kills with as little passion as he sings karaoke. Over the course of the film we see that a fight, even when you have an enemy can only truly be with yourself. By winning you lose your innocence, by losing you lose yourself.