Only God Forgives & Reality

July 20, 2013
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“Time to meet the devil,” says Billy to his brother, Julian, before setting out for a big night on the town in old Bangkok. Billy, who runs a kick-boxing franchise and deals drugs, has unusual tastes in entertainment. We meet him next in a bordello staring at a group of girls, but feeling disappointed because he can’t get hold of a 14-year-old and the owner won’t volunteer his daughter. After a bit of gratuitous violence, he finds another girl on the street, whom he proceeds to murder.

When the girl’s father and pimp calls the cops, the head policeman, Chang, tells the grieving parent he can do what he likes with the murderer. He does as invited, initiating a nightmarish cycle of violence, as one act of bloody revenge follows another. The prime-mover is Billy and Julian’s mother, Crystal, who flies in to make sure her son’s killers get their desserts.

That’s basically the plot of Only God Forgives by Danish director, Nicolas Winding Refn. The script could be transcribed onto a piece of A4, with room left over for your grocery list. “Wanna fight?” is just about the longest – and most clearly articulated – sentence uttered by Ryan Gosling’s Julian.

Chang, the implacable avenger in a dark blue safari suit, says almost nothing. However, he likes to unwind with a Karaoke session after spending the evening savaging criminals with a sharp blade somewhere between a sword and a machete.

Only God Forgives makes the previous Refn/Gosling collaboration, Drive, look like a family feature. That movie earned Refn the Best Director prize at Cannes in 2011, but Only God Forgives was booed and jeered at the same venue. It was a different story at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Film – which may mean we’re more enlightened than the juries in Cannes, or two years’ behind the pace. To say this is a polarising movie is an understatement.

Refn himself has no difficulty in seeing Only God Forgives as “great art”, which will always – as the cliché goes – meet with a hostile reception. He obviously doesn’t suffer from false modesty, but his call may well be right. The film is a remarkable piece of cinematic poetry, with scenes drenched in a lurid red light that suggests blood and madness. This disturbing atmosphere is reinforced by a growling, popping musical score that keeps the tension simmering, almost subliminally.

There is a great deal of graphic violence but it is choreographed like a modern dance performance or a Kabuki drama. For each grisly act we witness there is another that Refn skips, showing an understanding that an endless procession of brutalities soon becomes tiresome. He also realises that the viewer has seen sufficient to be able to fill in the blanks.

The film shows the influence of the king of weird, David Lynch, not least in Chang’s Karaoke singing. Other directors who spring to mind include Japanese cult figures such as Seijun Suzuki and Koji Wakamatsu. The emphasis on psychological torment, sexual violence and impotence, was a familiar feature of Japan’s avant-garde movies of the 1960s and 70s.

Sex is everywhere in this film, although never explicitly portrayed. As soon as we meet the foul-mouthed, Crystal, we can see that both Billy and Julian never had a hope. When your mother holds forth to strangers about the respective size of her sons’ genitalia, it’s understandable that the boys might have a problem with women – Billy becoming a psycho-killer, while Julian seems to be an impotent voyeur who works off his frustrations by beating up strangers.

Crystal is an amazing transformation for Kristin Scott-Thomas, whom we are now accustomed to seeing in one sensitive French drama after another. She is the Mother From Hell in a long blonde wig, showing a taste in fashion that may be described as slut chic.

There are no heroes in this film, although Julian’s state of semi-catatonia is interrupted by flashes of conscience. Chang, played in a menacing deadpan by Vithaya Pansringarm, has affection for his small daughter, but no mercy for criminals. He is always prepared to play the judge and deal out the death sentence. Although his methods are brutal he acts as if he is partaking in a solemn ritual. There is no sense of sadistic pleasure in his executions, even when he takes one villain apart piece by piece.

The deputy policeman’s advice to the ladies in a club might be just as applicable to the viewer: “No matter what happens girls, close your eyes and keep them closed.” Anyone who did this would miss a few buckets of gore but also one of the most visually arresting films of the year. It’s worth suffering to sample Refn’s “art”.

Matteo Garrone’s Reality is billed as a comedy, but it is not of the laugh-out-loud variety. Instead, one watches in a kind of tense, cringing state, as Luciano (Aniello Arena), a Neapolitan fishmonger, becomes more and more obsessed with the idea of appearing on the Big Brother program – or as it is known in Italy, Grande Fratello.

The progress of Luciano’s idée fixe turns him into a holy fool who spends all day in mystical communion with the TV set. He starts giving the family’s belongings to the poor, just in case he is being observed and judged by the Big Brother producers.

Being one of those people for whom Big Brother has never held the slightest appeal, I was fascinated by Garrone’s dissection of the mass psychology of Reality TV. Big Brother combines the voyeuristic thrill of watching those who can’t see you, with the titillating idea that perfectly ordinary people like oneself can become TV stars. It is, however, more like a social psychology experiment in which the house guests modify their behaviour to appeal to an audience they know to be watching and judging them. Luciano extends that paradigm to the outside world.

The film begins at a wedding, where Luciano dresses up in drag and pesters the local celebrity, Enzo, who is famous for winning Big Brother. His friends and family think Luciano is a scream. When he gets the chance to audition for the Reality show at the studios in Rome, he becomes convinced that he’s dazzled the producers and is a certain starter in the next series.

He waits, and waits for a phone call, growing more edgy and eccentric by the day. Soon he is imagining that he is being spied upon by agents from the program who are secretly assessing his suitability. This leads Luciano to change his way of life and alter his personality, to the point where he plays the saint. His friend Michele (Nando Paone) thinks that religion is the answer, and drags Luciano along to church, where he can substitute God the Father for Big Brother.

This is one of those films that grows more impressive upon reflection. Garrone is a distinguished heir to the Neo-Realist traditions of Italian cinema, and Reality is no less vivid in its portrait of working class life in Naples than his previous film, the acclaimed crime drama, Gomorrah (2008). Luciano is surrounded by a noisy and adoring extended family. He plies his trade selling fish and, in true Neopolitan style, works small scams on the side. This is the reality he trades for the claustrophobic dream of life in the Big Brother house.

Garrone shows us the ‘bread and circuses’ atmosphere of Italy under Silvio Belusconi, who often seemed more like an actor than a politician. The economy may be shot to pieces but everyone at a party is gasping with excitement because Enzo is about to make an appearance. Chi è Enzo? A typical representative of what we now call a “celebrity” – a nobody who has enjoyed his few minutes of fame on the box, and is cashing in. At the premiere of Man of Steel a few weeks ago, the theatre was packed with Enzos.

Having paid his homage to the Neo-Realism of Visconti, Rossellini and De Sica, Garrone shows that he can also manage a fair impersonation of Fellini in the way he portrays Luciano’s chaotic family life and his gradual descent into the abyss. He is assisted by a sympathetic score by Alexandre Desplat, one of the great movie composers of our times, who does his own impersonation of Nino Rota.

Reality is framed like a sinister fairy-story. The movie begins with the camera swooping down from the heavens to capture the approach of a Disneyfied wedding coach. In the final frames we zoom back into the sky and away. What happens in between might be best described as a cautionary tale for the era of mass media.

Luciano is far from religious, as we realise from a scene in which he barges into a church service in pursuit of an old woman who is cheating on one of his scams. Garrone suggests that the turn to Catholicism is only another form of escapism. The point is made, blatantly enough, that religion and Reality TV both play the role of social pacifiers, distracting people from the harsh circumstances of their lives through their respective promises of salvation or celebrity.

Rather than seeing Luciano as an anomaly in Italian society one could say he is only a logical extension of the media-fuelled delusions that so many people entertain. Whatever the narcissisms that lead a man to believe he is smarter, funnier and more talented than the common herd, Luciano is only one of a growing breed. It’s a viral phenomenon and it’s deadly. The rise of Reality TV has shown that people everywhere are ready to flee their own humble homes and snatch at a media fantasy.

Only God Forgives, France/Thailand/USA/Sweden, rated MA 15+, 98 mins

Reality, Italy/France, rated M, 116 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, July 20, 2013