Bresson Gone Bad
I have long been suspicious of the 'aesthetics equals ethics' tendency in serious film criticism, with its absolutist claims of what are good and bad styles in cinema. My internal alarm bells first sounded when a well-regarded critic and film festival director regaled me, in a crowded café, with the reasons for his distaste for Atom Egoyan's movies: 'The shots are too neat, too clean, everything is lined up too well! It betrays a fascistic frame of mind'. I am glad no cinematographers were eavesdropping on that conversation.
In fact, this proposition, in its many forms and variations, has become commonplace in criticism. Films with long takes, shot from far away, are good because they allow us to time to observe the entire social context (cinematic democracy!); films with fast editing and many close-ups are bad because they pander to alienated sensationalism. Films with a lot of silence or gentle, directly-recorded ambient sounds are good; noisy, loud films brutalise our sensibilities. Films that respect the whole human body in full frame are good; films that fragment the body in blurry montages are bad. And so on. It all reminds me of the absurd arguments of 30 or 40 years ago when earnest, avant-garde composers asserted that dance music was the devil's spawn because of its 'regimented, robotic beat'. But who would dare argue this now?
While vigilant against absolutism, I did, myself, recently experience such violent distaste against a particular movie that I found myself wanting to immediately write a manifesto denouncing 'a certain tendency in modern cinema' — perhaps the greatest occupational hazard tempting the contemporary critic. The film is Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding Refn — whose Drive (2011) I watched repeatedly and admired enormously for its craft.
Manifesto aside, Winding Refn is surely a curious case. He joins Carlos Reygadas and Gaspar Noé (whose Enter the Void (2009) 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 a lurid, sensational, decadent, violent content on the other side. 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.
This is not to say that the kind of shotgun marriage that Only God Forgives proposes — between Bresson and a Thai boxing movie — can never work. After all, directors including Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, 1976), Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, 1992) and Takeshi Kitano (Sonatine, 1993) have proved, beyond doubt, that the sacred and the profane can go together in fine combustion. Critics today need to reaffirm the principle that anything goes, and that anything can work — rather than place their trust in spurious, artificial systems of absolute value. In film criticism, the only acceptable court of law operates on a case-by-case basis.