Danish ‘pornographer of violence’ in Cannes spotlight

Denmark's Nicolas Winding Refn, whose supermodel horror story "The Neon Demon" premieres Friday at the Cannes film festival, is a divisive filmmaker whose genre-bending, violent work has earned him a cult following.

Danish 'pornographer of violence' in Cannes spotlight
Refn at the opening of the Lumiere Grand Lyon film festival in October 2015. Photo: Robert Pratta/Scanpix
After dropping out of his country's National Film School, he scored a surprise hit at the Danish box office in 1996 with his debut “Pusher”, a low-budget drama about Copenhagen's drug scene.
The film also launched the career of Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who rose to global fame as the Bond baddie Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale”.
Mikkelsen's place on this year's Cannes jury may have put Refn and his film about cannibalism on the Los Angeles fashion scene in a difficult spot.
Refn once said that when he and Mikkelsen work together “it's like we're united as one person”.
However, it's a purely work-based relationship. “We do not see each other if we're not working,” Mikkelsen said in a 2012 documentary.
“I mean he can only, and I say only, talk about films. And I can almost only talk about sports,” he added.
With his thick-framed glasses and hipster cardigans, there is little about the soft-spoken Refn to suggest he is a self-confessed “pornographer” of violence.
“We humans are physically created to exert violence. Since we are forced to repress our violent tendencies, we get a need to see images of violence,” he once told a Swedish newspaper.
Viewed by many as Denmark's first real gangster movie, “Pusher” showed the violent underbelly of the country's picturesque capital: the central Vesterbro district's flourishing drug trade and those who control it.
Filmed with a handheld camera in chronological order, Mikkelsen has claimed it inspired Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg who founded the avant-garde filmmaking movement Dogme 95 — “even though they will never admit it,” he said.
While promoting 'The Neon Demon' on Friday, Refn had some choice awards for von Trier. 
“Lars is Lars. He’s done a lot of drugs,” Refn said. 
“The last time I saw Lars he asked my wife if she wanted to have sex. He found some other slut,” Refn said, adding that von Trier is “over the hill”.
The Neon Demon trailer – story continues below
From flop to 'Drive'
Refn's position at this year's Cannes festival is a far cry from where he stood after writing and directing his first English-language film, “Fear X”.
His first attempt to make it in Hollywood flopped so badly it pushed him into bankruptcy and forced him to return to Denmark, where he made two “Pusher” sequels and even directed a “Miss Marple” episode to make ends meet.
The “massive failure” of his first international production “still haunts me to this day” but knocked “some sense into me”, he said later.
It wasn't until 2008 that he ventured overseas again, with “Bronson”, which tells the story of one of Britain's most notorious criminals, Charles Bronson.
He finally cracked Hollywood in 2011 with “Drive”, starring heartthrob Ryan Gosling as a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway car driver, earning him the best director award at that year's Cannes festival.
“We're very similar in many ways,” he said of the actor in a 2013 interview with Britain's The Guardian. “We're both mama's boys. We both worship women as goddesses.”
Their second collaboration in 2013 fared less well. Blood-spattered revenge tale “Only God Forgives” was booed at a press screening in Cannes and left many in the auditorium wincing or unable to watch.
In one scene, Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm — playing an ex-cop on a mission to purge Bangkok of sleaze — pins a man to an armchair with knives and stabs him through the eye.
“The movie is so devoid of emotion that its ritualised gore acts as a narcotic,” The New York Times wrote in a review.
“Three words should suffice: pretentious macho nonsense,” it added.
Online giant Amazon has acquired the distribution rights to “The Neon Demon” and will release it in US cinemas as well as on its video streaming service.
“The day that television was invented, cinema changed,” Refn told the Deadline Hollywood website in February.
“Now it's a screen in (a) stadium Imax, but it's also an iPhone and both are equally as important,” he added.

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How Danish Oscar-nominated dark booze comedy was inspired by director’s tragic loss

‘Another Round’ (Danish title: ‘Druk’), a film about a pact by four world-weary Danish schoolteachers to spend every day drunk for a loosely scientific "experiment," was always going to walk a fine line between comedy and darkness.

How Danish Oscar-nominated dark booze comedy was inspired by director’s tragic loss
Director Thomas Vinterberg talking to press in Denmark. Photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

Director Thomas Vinterberg wrote his script, originally a play, upon realising many of the world’s great historic feats were made by people regularly intoxicated on alcohol — the very same substance that can rip lives and families apart.

But four days into shooting, Vinterberg’s daughter was killed in a car crash. He somehow still finished the uniquely funny, tender and tragic film — which has earned him a rare Oscar nomination for best director. 

“The movie was always meant to be life-affirming and full of love, and bare to some extent… raw,” Vinterberg told AFP in an interview via Zoom. 

“But the tragedy that happened in my life left all defenceless and open.”

Starring as the teachers are four of Vinterberg’s close friends and collaborators, including former 007 villain Mads Mikkelsen, who all spent the shoot doing “everything they could to make me laugh in these circumstances.”

“There was so much love on the set — and I guess you can see that on the screen,” said Vinterberg, whose movie is a favourite to take home the Oscar for best international film on Sunday.

While the film is clearly about alcohol, it is also “about living inspired, about forgetting about yourself, about being curious, and being in the moment and all that comes with drinking.”

Those life-affirming elements were inspired by his daughter Ida, who was due to play Mikkelsen’s daughter, and whose real-life friends play classmates who participate in a joyous teen drinking competition around a lake.

“There’s an alarming bunch of people and countries who connected to this thing about drinking,” joked Vinterberg.

“Yes, they drink differently in California — they put the bottle in a [paper] bag — whereas in Denmark, teenagers run around in the streets with bottles out,” he said.

“But it seems that the film connects on a different level, and hopefully we succeeded in elevating this film… to a movie about something more.”

Humour is not always associated with Vinterberg, co-founder of the ascetic Dogme 95 filmmaking movement with Lars Von Trier, and director of movies tackling issues such as child abuse including “The Celebration” and “The Hunt.” 

But Vinterberg, 51, has often defied categorization. The famous Dogme 95 “manifesto” imposing strict naturalistic limits on directors was always half serious, half tongue-in-cheek.

And while he has dabbled in Hollywood — for instance 2015’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” starring Carey Mulligan, also an Oscar nominee this year — his most widely acclaimed films are often his most Danish and local.

“It seems like when I dig in my own garden, that’s when people really get interested, also abroad,” he said.

The universal themes of “Another Round” may partly explain how Vinterberg landed one of just five Oscar best director nods, for a non-English-language film (fellow nominee Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” is in Korean and English).

“The pleasures of alcohol, but also the destructive side of drinking, have been around for thousands of years, in all cultures almost,” said Vinterberg. 

The director served his cast booze during rehearsals, and they watched Russian YouTube videos together to observe episodes of extreme inebriation.

“We needed to see these characters being in the zone,” he recalled. “It wasn’t like they were very drunk, actually, but there was alcohol.”

On set, however, everyone was sober, Vinterberg said — “they had to act, basically, which I think they did well.”

Much as the production of “Another Round” is a story of contrasts — tragedy and camaraderie, humor and philosophy — the fates of the teachers diverge when the temptation of booze takes hold to varying degrees with each of them.

But the movie itself deliberately “did not want to moralize” or “make an advertisement for alcohol,” said Vinterberg.

“Very importantly, I did not want to have a message.”