Midway through Nicolas Winding Refn’s new Netflix series Copenhagen Cowboy, I was thoroughly bored. The repetition was annoying: another neon-drenched set with stilted dialogue and glacial plot development. Then, in a shot that probably lasted no more than a minute, the series’ protagonist moved upwards in an elevator as a synth score kicked into overdrive. The brief scene’s immaculate construction ended up burrowing in my brain for days.
That small example underlines how Refn and fellow art house helmer Gaspar Noé are some of the most stylistically dazzling directors working today, to the point I regularly seek out their work. Yet I struggle to recommend almost any of their films. They provide memorable moments of stylish brilliance that clash against sophomoric writing, turgid dialogue, and nihilistic, sadistic violence. It’s frustrating because both could produce fantastic work with the right writers and collaborators.
Admittedly it can take a lot of work to group these two directors. Noé’s and Refn’s most famous films derive from different genres, if not at times, entirely different worlds. Noe’s 2002 Irréversible is messy and heavily improvised, a French extreme horror revenge tale whose reverse narrative structure feels in conversation with Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Refn’s 2011 Drive is a slick, minimalist crime thriller that meshes late 70s Walter Hill with 80s synths and a stoic turn from star Ryan Gosling.
I still view Noé and Refn as kindred spirits. Both are stubborn art house directors with flashes of critical acclaim, including multiple premieres at Cannes. Both broke through to larger cultural awareness around the same time, and both regularly write alongside their directing duties (Noé for every feature, Refn for all but one.)
Noé and Refn can also conjure imagery that’s hard to shake, untethered to anything else in movies today. Noé’s Irréversible opens the film by tracking two men bent on revenge in a club that visually and sonically feels like a descent into hell. The screen fills with dim, red lighting and abrasive, throbbing music as the camera spirals down a hallway, providing glimpses of the horror yet to come. It’s a movie that’s so brutal I’ll likely never revisit it, but to Noe’s credit, I’ve never had a sense of dread conveyed in such a sudden, deranged way than with that film’s opener.
Noé’s Enter the Void has one of the best opening credit sequences of all time – a strobe-aided acid trip of flashing text set to LFO’s “Freak” – and an otherworldly floating camera that feels alien. Climax kicks off with an irresistible dance party set against Cerrone’s disco classic “Supernature” that’s probably one of the strongest musical sequences I’ve seen in years. Later on, as the movie’s party atmosphere gives way to horror, Sofia Boutella, playing a young, energetic dancer, crawls her way back to the dance floor as the camera slowly turns upside down. Other characters freak out as Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” blasts over the speakers. It’s an instantly iconic shot.
Refn tends to be sleek and has arguably cribbed too much from the 1980s and David Lynch, but he still manages to pack at least one knockout sequence in everything he makes. Drive’s opening pre-credits chase scene is brilliant. It’s easily one of the cleverest slow-burn car scenes we’ve gotten in a long time. With smart editing, sound design, a propulsive Chromatics song, and Ryan Gosling’s steely acting, it’s a fresh change of pace from the more bombastic Fast and Furious set pieces from modern blockbusters.
While on the subject of cars, Refn’s Amazon Video TV series Too Old To Die Young slots in a bizarre chase scene set to Barry Manilow’s “Mandy”. Cop and criminal chase through the night, with slow fades between each driver that seems more fitting at face value with a character drama than a crime thriller. The aesthetic choices have an ethereal quality while simultaneously feeling like a wink from Refn to lighten the mood and cut through some of the series’ pretension.
However, despite smart stylistic choices, neither Refn nor Noé ever escapes their worst impulses. Refn rarely develops his characters beyond simple genre filler. Consequently, many of his scenes can be a chore to sit through. As his works have gotten longer and more supernatural, enjoyable pacing falls by the wayside.
Noé seems to relish in the ugliness of his stories to such a degree he feels like a childish provocateur, dulling the larger impact of his film in favor of extended passages of shock and spectacle. In his debut I Stand Alone, Noé infamously flashes a late title card cautioning the audience “You have 30 seconds to leave the screening of this film” before the final carnage begins. Noé’s collaboration with the fashion house Saint Laurent generated Lux Aeterna, a conceit that starts as a more intriguing hangout film starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and eventually devolves into a cacophony of piercing beeps and strobe lights that feels tailor-made to drive Cannes audiences out of the theater.
Each director’s weaknesses are so consistent that I can’t recommend their films except for Refn’s Drive and Noé’s Climax. The root issue is their often terrible screenplays. Neither director seems to vet them beyond an impulsive first pass. Paradoxically, their panache becomes less a strength than a crutch, deploying another artfully arrayed tableau to paper over poor writing decisions.
It’s overdue for the directors to take cues from David Fincher’s path: rely on strong screenwriters that mesh with their exacting vision and put personal writing ambitions away. Perhaps it’s too late: Nicolas Winding Refn and Gaspar Noé are both in their fifties with enough cult admiration to ensure funding for future projects. Nevertheless, it’s frustrating to consider what could have been.