Back in streaming with the Copenhagen Cowboy series, Nicolas Winding Refn has built a body of work that makes him one of the most important filmmakers of his time. It is not he who will say the opposite…
In 1996, Pusher introduced Nicolas Winding Refn to the Scandinavian film scene. At 24, the “wild child” of Danish cinema was already insisting on not wanting to belong to “conventional” cinema: hyperrealist thriller and cruel dive into the “underworld” of Copenhagen, camera in hand and documentary look, Pusher is the kind of cinematic uppercut that only happens once every ten or twenty years.
On the other hand, Nicolas Winding Refn also refused any parallel between his film and Dogma 95, an avant-garde movement launched the previous year by his compatriots and elders Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, and whose strict rules – handheld camera, natural light, action that takes place here and now… – seemed to him already outdated. For Dogma, genre cinema and violence are unacceptable, and the filmmaker must forget himself as an artist in favor of obtaining reality. Refn is quite the opposite: a lover of genre cinema, an aesthete of violence, a disproportionate ego. Today, “NWR” is only referred to by its initials; he has made his name a brand, three letters that strike his works as a pledge of singularity.
Cinema, his “American way of life”
Born in 1970 in Copenhagen into a film family, the only son of Anders Refn – editor of Breaking the Waves (1996) and Antichrist (2009) by Lars Von Trier – and Vibeke Winding – cinematographer, documentary filmmaker and photographer – grew up with his mother in New York, the city which, he says, forged him. In the 1980s, the many cinemas in Times Square lived their last moments. The “megastores” and the giant electronic billboards scrolling live the evolutions of the Stock Exchange replace one by one the facades announcing the projection of an American classic, a double program dedicated to the “giallo” or a porn film.
The explosion of the video and television market will end up burying them. For teenager Nicolas, color blind and dyslexic, who learned to read late in life, cinema is not just a hobby: it is his “American way of life”. Refn will do his teenage self-portrait in video club employee of Bleeder (1999), embodied by his alter ego Mads Mikkelsen: reserved, sensitive but lucid, and capable of quoting dozens of names of filmmakers from around the world without taking a breath.
Grand and wild beginnings
His early cinema, both grandiose and wild, is in line with the first films of John Cassavetes or Martin Scorsese. His radical stylistic evolutions have never erased the two fundamental principles of his work: making the protagonist the driving force of the story and filming in chronological order – which encourages him to rewrite his film along the way. , “like a painting”, with “the uncertainty of what it will give in the end”.
Copenhagen Cowboy: NWR according to NWR
Copenhgen Cowboy shows nothing of Copenhagen, any more than we see fine triggers riding horses. The usual solitary hero without a past, omnipresent in NWR, is a heroine, Miu. A “lucky charm” with a pronounced taste for sports tracksuits, and whose supernatural powers arouse the interest of several figures of the criminal world: an aging pimp mother who still hopes to get pregnant, a crooked lawyer, a gangster from the Balkans, an Aryan type serial killer and blood drinker… From enemy to enemy, the laconic Miu traces her path like an odyssey where the danger is constantly growing.
With this second series – after Too Old to Die Young (2019), on Amazon Prime – Refn finds refuge in his native Denmark and at Netflix. Mastering his ethereal and color-saturated style better than ever – he takes pleasure in rewarding the viewer with hypnotizing 360° panoramic shots – the filmmaker combines the extreme stylization of his American period with the harshness of the Danish underworld of his beginnings, until taking up a rather similar gallery of villains (but much less powerful than the androgynous heroine, who knows her kung-fu perfectly).
Sum of all his work, which he definitely approaches from the angle of the bizarre, Copenhagen Cowboy does not necessarily open up new horizons for the author, but, at 50, he takes a look at the work accomplished… Without ( too much) looking at your navel – that’s the novelty! Above all, NWR asks a philosophical question that goes beyond the simple “message”: what if, in this era of streaming that feeds on its own formatting, an artist – let’s call him “the chosen one” – managed to challenge the algorithm? If that’s a gamble, NWR transcends it. But after this cryptic ending, his greatest feat will be to bend the streaming establishment for a season 2.
Copenhagen Cowboy, by Nicolas Winding Refn. Netflix.
And, like the two New York masters mentioned above, Nicolas Winding Refn’s risky methods have brought him close to failure more than once. In 2003, the thriller FearX – his third film, the first in English – leads him straight to bankruptcy. But the “gambler” recovers quickly, back in Denmark to dive back into the universe Pusher with two successful sequels, and which allow the whole world to discover the first film, until then practically invisible outside the kingdom.
Then there will be the case Only God Forgives (2013), which highlights many of his insights. That, in particular, of the artist dedicated to suffering, more than ever reflected in the Christlike and sacrificial character of Ryan Gosling, which he reinvents a second time, after the grandiose Drive (2011). Liv Corfixen, actress and wife of the filmmaker, will document the emotional instability of the latter and the crises – personal, family, artistic – that he goes through during filming, in the trying My Life with Nicolas Winding Refn (2013). A certain idea of hell, which only the existence of Ryan Gosling manages to soften, he who, between takes, improvises as babysitter and couple psychologist. It is nevertheless this work which will definitively specify the “NWR” style, the search for which had been initiated since Pusher III (2005) and Bronson (2008), biography of the most famous British psychopath, who made his life in prison a work of art.
NWR no longer refers to itself except by its initials; he made his name a mark
Whether Valhalla Rising (2009), a minimalist and silent Viking epic, remains the work in which his prophetic visions inherited from his mentors – Alejandro Jodorowsky and Stanley Kubrick in the lead – are sharpest, Only God Forgives, a child born of suffering, has what it takes to claim the same title. Facing William Friedkin, Refn calls it a “masterpiece” equal to 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) – which brings the director of The Exorcist to ask him what he thinks of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). Refn, impassive: “It’s very good”. And Friedkin to retort: “Is there a doctor in the room? I think this young man is not feeling well!” It is clear that Copenhagen Cowboy, his new series in six episodes, available since January 5 on Netflix, is generous in visions, old and new. “I combined my pasts in order to create my future,” he said.
An ego as big as a hot air balloon
It is now known and accepted: NWR has an ego as big as a hot air balloon. It’s part of the character, like a provocative running gag that he takes very seriously. In Bologna, his signature takes up all the space on the Cinema Ritrovato souvenir poster, which the invited filmmakers come to sign in the festival shop – even if it encroaches on the initials of his illustrious peers and masters. One example among many. But behind his thick-rimmed glasses, which reinforce his air of self-confidence and his attraction to violence, Refn reveals his anxieties and his sensitivity, proof of honesty.
Like his devotion to Jodorowsky’s tarot, which draws the cards for him before each new project. Passionate cinephile, NWR has created its own streaming platform – free but ephemeral –, dedicated to cinema rarities, and shares its impressive collection of cinema posters in a book (The Art of Looking). Proof that his ego willingly deflates when he takes on the role of smuggler (“Jodo” himself admitted that Refn gave him back his taste for cinema by taking him out of his “cinematic depression”). The name of the platform? “By NWR”.
2004: Pusher II
2005: Pusher III
2009: Valhalla Rising
2013: Only God Forgives
2016: The Neon Demon
2019: Too Old to Die Young
2023: Copenhagen Cowboy