Is violence the ultimate cinematic titillation?

Nicolas Winding Refn, director of Drive and Only God Forgives, soliloquizes on brutality in film

bronson_web

Taken from the December issue of Dazed & Confused:

I was 14 when I watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and I was destroyed by it. It was put together in a way that was far more non-linear than I was used to seeing, and it gave me images that I had never seen before in film. It implanted seeds in me that I will never forget – I will travel with this movie for the rest of my life. That was when I realised that film is an art form.

I now make films about what arouses me; I don’t make films about understanding why. When I made Bronson, I discovered that film could be an arousing force in itself; Drive and Only God Forgives were made from that same approach. Everything we do leads back to two primal instincts: sex and violence. Too much of anything is destructive, but with sexuality it’s hard to do anything except visualise it. In the end sex is something everybody does – there’s no depth within that. Sexuality has limitations in terms of what you can do with it creatively, whereas violence has a deeper impulse.

“It’s always interesting when people love and hate movies for the same reason. It is the only time you know when you’ve done something right. Unfortunately, violence is something that we’ve become immune too”

Drive and Only God Forgives don’t have a lot of violence, but people confuse watching violence and being violated by something. The latter means something has penetrated you, sometimes against your will, so your reaction is even stronger. If someone came up to me and said, “I thought that film was grotesquely violent,” I’d say, “The pleasure was all mine.”

It’s always interesting when people love and hate movies for the same reason. It is the only time you know when you’ve done something right. Unfortunately, violence is something that we’ve become immune too; it is packaged as essentially accessible entertainment. But if there is no consequence to the violence, people don’t react as much; it’s the lack of consequences that is terrifying in mass entertainment.

Violent behaviour is an instinctual part of our DNA. We live in a world that has found a way for us to live within certain restraints, thank God, but we still have the violent impulse. Art is an exorcism, a way to release it. There is an element of catharsis in my films in order to release that, and the emotion of release is in itself a very violent impulse. Creativity is, in a way, an act of violence – but it doesn’t have to be destructive. It’s like when people say the act of birth is a violent act: it’s a violent image, but at the same time it’s one of the most beautiful there is.

The more feminine violence is, the more effective it is. I think it makes the film more interesting. I don’t have a conscious personal connection to my protagonists because they are men. I don’t have any interest in masculinity – I don’t watch boxing, I don’t go to strip clubs, I don’t like any sports, I don’t like guy stuff and I don’t hang out with men. I don’t do anything that would be categorised as masculine.

I don’t think entertainment makes people violent. But entertainment can show people how to act violently, and that is maybe a little bit more frightening. Everybody who creates art has a responsibility. If you use violence, it’s effective when you have consequences. And the more fetishised it is, the harder it is for people to turn away.

Cover image is a still from Bronson. Only God Forgives is available on Blu-ray & DVD from 2 December.

More Arts+Culture