The Observer Effect is a scientific term that decrees the act of observing a phenomenon will automatically change how it proceeds. Taking that into account, it means that any documentary you view where the subject is willingly and repeatedly interviewed during the throes of action immediately has to be watched with an ounce of cynicism; especially one where the “star” is being probed in such a highly-strung and pressurized situation.
My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn certainly fits within these parameters. Refn, for the uninitiated, is the director of the trilogy of Pusher films, Bronson, Drive, and Only God Forgives. My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn was shot between the latter two, and intimately documents the filmmaker’s efforts and struggles making the 2013 follow-up to the deliciously gritty, patiently rousing and status-cementing vehicle for Ryan Gosling. Filmed by Refn’s wife, actress Liv Corfixen, the documentary grants us unprecedented access to Refn, who moved his young family, which also consists of two infant daughters, from Copenhagen to Bangkok for Only God Forgives’ production.
Corfixen immediately sets out to anchor the film with relatable and homely conflicts. And you can’t help but invest and relate to her strife. The fact that Refn’s work has moved their family halfway across the world to a foreign, dense and perilous city has severely altered their dynamic. Their eldest daughter, who appears to be aged around 8, admits to climbing over the edge of the fence of their 42-story high balcony, while the various Skype communications only add to the sense of isolation that surrounds the family. Heck, not even regular pop-ins from Only God Forgives’ leading actor and all-round dreamboat Ryan Gosling can pep up the Refns.
The problem for the family is that Nicolas Winding Refn is deflating under the pressure of molding Only God Forgives. He wants to make a film that will allow his career to emerge from the shadow of Drive (he even mentions emulating Lars Von Trier’s path) while also paying reference to it. And his inability to do just that has made him depressed. The Refn we see on screen is needy, childish and basically an all-round dick. We also see that being married to Refn has had a detrimental affect on Corfixen’s career, too, as she admits to legendary director/part-time tarot reader Alejandro Jodorowsky (whose involvement and readings only add to the film’s alienation aura) that his dominating presence means she is unable to evolve as an actress.
These flashes of raw honesty and conflict truly help to make Directed By Nicolas Refn uniquely poignant. Any film-lover will immediately be intrigued and engrossed by Refn’s dual struggles to bring together Only God Forgives in a clear vision, and his inability, and ultimate abandonment, to be a father and husband to his family. Because of its fresh, intimate and unsettling take on the perils of filmmaking, My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn deserves its place alongside the likes The Heart Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (secretly shot by Francis Ford Coppola’s wife during Apocalypse Now’s disastrous production), Lost In La Mancha and Burden Of Dreams, which document the productions of Terry Gilliam’s ultimately unrealised The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, respectively. However it does ultimately fall short of being as truly captivating or pulsating as either of these due to the fact that, in comparison to these, the production of Only God Forgives appears to have been rather uneventful.
But My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn doesn’t want to be a behind-the-scenes documentation of a ramshackled production gone out of control. Its eponymous “star” is what drives it. And it’s wonderfully insightful to see Refn buckling under the pressures of success. Drive’s acclaim has anchored his progress as a filmmaker, and we see Refn struggling, and never-really deciding, what sort of film he wants Only God Forgives to be. Fans of the film will be able to point to Refn’s distress, nerves and regular scene re-arranging as the reason why Only God Forgives has such a unique rhythm and haunting energy. While haters will be able to point out that’s why Only God Forgives is an uneven and uncomfortable imitation of Drive.
And while it’s absorbing to not only see Refn flailing in his efforts, but also how he choreographed some of Only God’s Forgives’ scenes, raised money for production, worked with Ryan Gosling, and that he is so superstitious he ties a blanket around himself during production, the film verges on being lifeless because of its singularly viewpoint. And to go back to my opening paragraph at times it feels like his frustrations are only exacerbated by the presence of Corfixen’s camera. Would he have had these issues without it there? The answer is almost certainly yes. But you can’t help but feel the intensity and strife is the result of the documentary being filmed, and thus is a tad fraudulent. Plus, his issues are almost the definition of rich-people problems.
This lack of scope and genuine conflict means that even though My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn is just 59 minutes longer, you can’t imagine it being a second longer. And ultimately it feels like it would have worked better as a magnificent DVD extra rather than just an intriguing and above adequate film.