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Film Review: ‘My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn’

For real insight into the Danish 'Drive' director's creative process, fans ought to track down the 2006 documentary 'The Gambler' instead.

Rather than take a backseat to “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn, occasional actress and full-time housewife Liz Corfixen fires back with a film of her own, billed as a behind-the-scenes look at her helmer husband’s Bangkok-made “Only God Forgives,” but essentially a loose production diary from her point of view. For anyone who’s ever wondered what being married to a tortured, world-famous director must be like, “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn” suggests the sacrifices required of those who live in an artist’s orbit, but it fails to offer what groupies surely want, which is insight into Refn’s creative process.

Though billed as a documentary, this 59-minute doodle barely rises above homemovie status, featuring more material of Corfixen’s two daughters dancing naked around hotel rooms than it does actual on-set footage — though ambient music from “Drive” composer Cliff Martinez gives her a distinct advantage over most amateur videographers. Still, considering how poorly “Only God Forgives” did in theaters, it’s hard to imagine even the most die-hard fans showing up to see Radius’ day-and-date VOD release on the bigscreen, unless distribs got really creative and packaged the hourlong trifle with something else.

As it happens, “My Life” would make an excellent double bill with Phie Ambo’s 2006 “The Gambler,” a far meatier Refn docu chronicling the director’s insane plan to dash off back-to-back “Pusher” sequels in order to dig himself out of debt following the commercial failure of his most ambitious film, “Fear X.” As in “My Life,” Jang (as Refn is known by friends and family) can also be observed “directing” his wife around the house, though “The Gambler” also manages to capture the director at his most creatively intense, fighting artistic self-doubts while desperately trying to recover from a massive career setback.

By contrast, “My Life” finds Refn at a career high. “Drive” has brought his international profile to its pinnacle, and he’s nervous that fans won’t understand that his next film isn’t more of the same, but rather a far more personal work. (At one point, he was on track to direct Ryan Gosling in a big-studio remake of “Logan’s Run,” though there’s no mention of what became of that project here.)

Rather than stay home with the kids again, as she had on past productions abroad, Corfixen picks up the family and relocates to Bangkok, attached to her husband for the duration of the shoot. According to interviews, the documentary project was conceived to keep her from getting bored abroad, but as such, she merely passes the boredom along to audiences, who were surely expecting not only access, but a deeper portrait of Refn’s process.

Sadly, the couple’s at-home dynamic is surely one of the least interesting things about the director, and while it’s amusing to see a relaxed Gosling playing with their two girls, no one here seems to be putting much on the line — as opposed to “The Gambler,” where the sense that Refn’s career is teetering on the brink of implosion rivals the high-stakes dynamic we’ve come to expect from his own films. We do see Refn encouraging Gosling’s directing ambitions by entrusting him with second-unit duties, but he’s maybe not the best mentor, judging by his aptly titled “Lost River.”

At any rate, while it’s reasonable for Corfixen to expect more involvement from her husband, it’s tedious to watch them negotiate these terms. Audiences, of course, want him all to themselves — which is to say, they would probably be fine with Refn divorcing his wife and dedicating himself to cinema full-time. That prospect actually crosses Corfixen’s mind in one of the film’s more surprising scenes: “Only God Forgives” has been selected for competition at Cannes, and Refn’s longtime friend Alejandro Jodorowsky (a fellow cult director, with two projects at the fest that year) offers Corfixen a private tarot reading. The cards suggest that her only way to be free is to leave her husband — but it’s not. Far from it, in fact.

Certainly, Corfixen isn’t the first director’s wife to document her husband at work, the most revealing being Eleanor Coppola’s “Hearts of Darkness,” captured on the set of Francis’ famously troubled “Apocalypse Now” shoot. (If anything remotely tempestuous happened on “Only God Forgives,” Corfixen either wasn’t there to record it, or decided not to include it.) Some collaborate, while others, like Marion Cotillard (coupled with French director Guillaume Canet), manage parallel success. Solutions exist, but the sad truth is the only reason we care about Corfixen’s life at all is that it’s being directed by Refn, so perhaps she’s picked the wrong audience to whom to complain.

Film Review: 'My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn'

(Documentary — Denmark) A Radius-TWC (in U.S.) release of a Space Rocket Nation presentation and production, in collaboration with DR. Produced by Lene Borglum.

Production: Directed, written by Liz Corfixen. Camera (color, HD), Corfixen; Cathrine Ambus; music, Cliff Martinez; sound designer, Kristian Selin Eidnes Andersen.

Crew: Nicolas Winding Refn, Liz Corfixen, Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Alejandro Jodorowsky. (English, Danish dialogue)

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