Can the man who created Only God Forgives’s Crystal really be a misogynist?
We’re all aware of the persistent ineptitude of the film industry with regards to its representation and treatment of women. It’s a problem that is at last beginning to be addressed in the media, and more importantly, by those in the industry itself. But with the accusations coming thick and fast, you can’t help but feel that they’re often being directed at the wrong people.
As a director, and as an artist, it’s not Refn’s responsibility to make films about anything other than what interests him
Late last year it was revealed that Nicolas Winding Refn was working on an all-female horror film, I Walk With The Dead, and that he had hired playwright, Polly Stenham, to help him with the script. Stenham remarked that “he’s got a lot of stick for doing films some people think are violently misogynistic,” and that the director approached her with “the idea of doing something different”. Indeed, Refn’s films have always featured very few women, and of those, fewer still could be considered as empowering figures – but does this equate to violent misogyny?
As a director, and as an artist, it’s not Refn’s responsibility to make films about anything other than what interests him. As it happens, Refn is fascinated by violence, masculinity, crime and sex; he’s a self-proclaimed pornographer who shoots what arouses his attention. It’s easy to write a lack of female representation as sexist or misogynistic, but that just masks the intentions of a director who simply set out to make a film about violent men, and worse yet it trivialises the meanings of these otherwise important criticisms.
Admittedly, Refn rarely pushes the envelope with his choice of gender roles, but that’s not to suggest that he’s not advancing representations of women in film. Carey Mulligan’s Irene in Drive was one of those rare characters who was, on face value, little more than the idyllic princess waiting to be rescued by Ryan Gosling’s Driver, but who was in many other ways, a strong female character. Indeed, she doesn’t take names like Ellen Ripley, but she’s a hard working single mother, acting in the interests of her child and who was not entirely floored (as I was) by the mere sight of Gosling.
With Crystal, Refn made an intimidating crime lord that happened to be female, instead of some carbon copy femme fatale
It’s not as obvious, but the heroism and strength of a single mother is one that our culture rarely celebrates or promotes, let alone recognises as well as Refn does in Drive. Similarly, look at Crystal, the monstrous matriarch that dominates Refn’s divisive Only God Forgives. Whatever people said about the film, there was no argument that Kristin Scott Thomas’s character was not one to forget. Crystal dominates every scene of Only God Forgives, not through brute force, but through venom, humiliation and ferocity; ultimately you don’t need convincing that she could get you killed, because her icy stare is all it takes.
The remarkable thing about Crystal is that she has depth and conflict to rival her psychological might – Refn made an intimidating crime lord that happened to be female, instead of some carbon copy femme fatale sidekick. Interestingly, Gosling’s character in Only God Forgives is anything but the typical protagonist; emasculated, riddled with grief and living in constant fear, his life is dominated by sexual fantasies and nightmares of castration – but nobody seems to have called Refn out for misandry.
It’s an industry-wide issue: Is a lack of female characters making film less universal?
Generally speaking, mainstream cinema is growing up with regards to its presentation of women, but it’s still desperately flawed. On the one hand, we’re seeing a greater number of female leads and a shift in the typical roles reserved for women in films. That said, many filmmakers are still failing to add any depth, nuance or variety to the females in their films, leaving us not with particularly negative depictions of women, but certainly stale and shallow ones. The Wolf of Wall Street, Oblivion, Pacific Rim and Gangster Squad are all shining examples of very recent films that resigned their female characters to long-standing industry tropes.
Of the women featured in Refn’s work, none are representative of the throwaway female characters prevalent in mainstream cinema
Refn might have a huge lack of feminine representation in his filmography, something that he’s clearly looking to address, but when he does delve into female characters he doesn’t mollycoddle his audience. There are misogynistic elements in the film industry; women are numerically stumped, horribly misrepresented and rarely elevated beyond minor roles. If Refn is a misogynist – and it’s arguable at best – it’s not evident in his films. Of the very small number of women actually featured in his work, none are representative of either the throwaway female characters so prevalent in mainstream cinema, or the kind of malicious characterisation you’d expect from a director who is allegedly a violent misogynist.
Love the work, Nicolas: Why Only God Forgives is actually a “fucking masterpiece”
Featured image: Sasoriza (via Flickr)
Inset images: FilmDistrict; Lionsgate UK