Do you believe in coincidences? Okay, then let me ask you this: what does Nicholas Winding Refn’s controversial new film – Only God Forgives – have in common with Puccini’s opera, Tosca? The fact that I saw them both on the same day? That’s only of significance to me. That they are both examples of creative expression combining music, story and images? They’re by no means unique in that. The fact that they have a musical connection? Well, I didn’t see that coming. When I sat down in the cinema yesterday afternoon to watch Only God Forgives, knowing that my wife and I had tickets to see Tosca in the Opera House that evening, the last thing I expected was to hear Tosca’s famous aria, Vissi d’Arte, playing over the opening credits. Yet it was somehow appropriate.
In the aria, Tosca sings that she has lived for art and goes on to ask God: “why, why, Lord, why do you reward me thus?” When Nicholas Winding Refn showed his latest film at the Cannes Film Festival it was booed by many of the audience of journalists and critics. He too lives for art, and he must have been wondering why the critics treated him so harshly. Having now seen the film, I don’t understand their reaction either. This film might not be everyone’s cup of Chai, but setting the question of film artistry aside for a moment, what is there about the film that would cause it to be booed?
The most strident criticism of the film I’ve heard is centred on its depiction of violence. People are shot, limbs are hacked off, torsos are ripped open and one man has his eyes gouged out. But in Tosca, the eponymous heroine of the story stabs her nemesis – repeatedly – at the end of the second act; her lover is shot by a firing squad; and Tosca herself dies in a hail of bullets just before the final curtain. In fact, by the end of the opera, all the principle characters have died violently. Okay, Only God Forgives is more gruesome; but you have to remember that this film was made over 100 years after Tosca was first performed (in 1900) and what shocked audiences back then seems pretty tame now, after we’ve been exposed to the films of Sam Peckinpah, films like Soldier Blue, almost the entire oeuvre of Quentin Tarrantino and that contretemps that actually took place between 1939 and 1945. Remember Saving Private Ryan? And if the eye-gouging scene offends you, have you seen Louis Bunuel’s 1929 classic, Un Chien Andalou? I rest my case.
If the violence in Only God Forgives was purely gratuitous, I’d sympathise with the film’s detractors; but the violence is essential to the plot, in my opinion. And if we’re so concerned about gratuitous violence in films anyway, how come Tarrantino’s Django Unchained was nominated for 5 Oscars? Was all that mayhem at the end really necessary?
The other criticism I’ve heard is that the actors in Only God Forgives move around the scenes like non-people. Once again, I see this is deliberate and entirely consistent with what I believe the film to be about. Like Tosca, Only God Forgives is an exploration of the struggle between good and evil; only, in Tosca, the struggle happens out in the open, whereas in Only God Forgives, the film deals with the internal struggle Julian (Ryan Gosling) is facing in trying to reconcile these conflicting influences on his personality formation. Why do I think this is what the film is about? My first clue lies in the way Refn shoots the film. Much of the action takes place in dark spaces, in long dark corridors, in isolated pools of light surrounded by shadows, against backgrounds of latticed or intersecting lines. These images suggest to me the interior of Julian’s brain. And if Julian appears lifeless on the screen, it is because we have entered his brain. Instead of seeing him, we are seeing what he feels on the inside and his image is only there to remind us that it is Julian’s brain we are navigating. But having said that, what a stroke of genius to cast Ryan Gosling in the role because I cannot think of another actor working today who can bring such intensity to a fixed expression.
And on the subject of casting, I think Kristin Scott Thomas is outstanding in the role of Julian’s mother. We are familiar with her past portrayals of the prickly, acerbic businesswoman; but in this film she is almost unrecognisable as evil personified; the mother of all wicked witches. If you can’t think of another reason to see the film, her performance is reason enough.
And if you don’t want to see it for KST’s extraordinary performance, do yourself a favour and watch it for the enigmatic Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). He too wanders in and out of scenes like a zombie but that’s not bad acting, or bad direction. Just think about what he represents and you’ll understand clearly why he plays it the way he does. I read one review that described him as the “bad guy” but for me, he was the epitome of “good” in the film. Sure, he performed a lot of impromptu butchery along the way; but only to those who deserved it. For me, the character of Chang represented a kind of universal conscience, thus explaining the last scene of the film and going a long way to deciphering the title. And the scenes where Chang sings karaoke love songs to a group of passive policemen are priceless, immediately bringing to my mind the glorious eccentricities of David Lynch.
It is not for me to tell anyone to like this film. We all have to make up our own minds about it. But I will counsel readers not to be put off by the negative reviews. Do yourself a favour and open your mind to it, to the content and to how it is expressed. In the history of cinema there are many films that opened to negative criticism but subsequently went on to become classics; and I have the feeling that his might be one of them. In any case, I think we should give the benefit of the doubt to those film makers who are prepared to push the boundaries of their art, to take us to places we’ve never been before, because that’s what the pioneers of cinema did.
And as a footnote, Only God Forgives won the Grand Prize at the recent Sydney Film Festival; so hats off to you Sydney.
Disclaimer: The interpretation of the film on which I based my critique is mine alone and it is not my intention or desire to “sell” this interpretation. I firmly believe that an artist interprets the world around him according to his own knowledge and experience and ability to express, and those of us who view the art interpret that each according to our own knowledge and experience and ability to comprehend. I do not know what Nicholas Winding Refn set out to say in this film. I can only state with certainty what the film he created said to me; and judge it on that basis.