Before reading a piece called “Bresson Gone Bad” by FilmKrant‘s Adrian Martin, I had never contemplated that Only God Forgives director Nicholas Winding Refn might be some kind of watered-down or, more to the point, deranged aesthetic descendant of Robert Bresson…the thought!
“Refn is surely a curious case,” Martin writes. “He joins Carlos Reygadas and Gaspar Noe (whose Enter the Void is clearly the Big Brother of Only God Forgives) in a loose grouping of filmmakers who try to marry a certain contemplative or ascetic legacy, on one side — that means, especially, the legacy of Robert Bresson and, and in a slightly different vein, Jean-Pierre Melville — with lurid, sensational, decadent, violent content on the other side.” Wells insertion: Let’s not forget Heli‘s Amat Escalante!
“It is possible to argue that Bresson himself, in his final, unsettling L’argent (1983), and after him Michael Haneke, worked towards a brew of this potency, comprised of such extremely different elements.
“But how does this ambition pan out in Only God Forgives? The stylistic moves here (as in another recent shocker, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers) are few, and endlessly repeated: people who stay absolutely still in the frame, like cardboard cut-out figures; an eyeball-searing colour scheme; ominous tracking shots down empty corridors; slow motion galore; and actors who are forbidden to express anything with their facial muscles (here, one curses dear old Bresson for ever having published his famous “Notes” on this subject).
“The inadvertent result of all these moves put together — punctuated with gruesome inserts of bodily decapitations by a Thai master’s sword, plus assorted dream/fantasy images — is a strange species of comedy, like a parody of Marguerite Duras‘ India Song (1975): no matter what spine-tingling, life-threatening menace awaits just off-frame, Winding Refn will always cut to Ryan Gosling standing stock still like a zombie. That is, a zombie who is also a Country Priest.”