Collyrium – Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon cinema

Andrea Jean Varraud · 4 years ago

Nicolas Winding Refn is undoubtedly one of the most innovative and respected filmmakers on the contemporary scene. Over the years, the Danish director’s work has become iconic, especially for his great aesthetic composition. But let’s proceed orderly. To understand and appreciate Refn’s work it is essential to have a comprehensive knowledge of his professional career. Over the years, the director has steered away from periods of poverty, during which he gave birth to some of his works most appreciated by fans, to moments of incredible media success, while he realized his most experimental works, going entirely against the public’s expectations.

Nicolas Winding Refn was born in Copenhagen from a family of artists: his father was a director, the mother a photographer. Due to his parents’ professional career, the young Nicolas grows up in the New York of the 80s, an experience that he still carries today, especially for the beautiful squalor of crime, B-movies and neon lights that has deeply shaped his art. In 1993, at the age of 23, the director enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but yet to graduate decides to return home where, after directing a first short film, he receives funding for his first movie: Pusher. Pusher becomes a cult movie in a short time, thanks to the extreme crudity in which the drug world is shown, though never turning into cheap moralism and for the extremely peculiar direction style.

After the incredible success of his first film, Refn directs two other movies, which despite the international cast, are a flop at the box office so much that he takes the opportunity to return to the direction of two Pusher sequels which turn out to be positive both concerning review and economic success. But director’s true exploit arrives in 2011, the year of his Drive direction which will earn him the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival. Drive represents a clear breaking point in Refn’s cinema. It symbolizes his transition to a more introspective and silent cinema. This film is a real action movie: with car chases, robbery, violence, and love. All these aspects are analyzed and transposed uniquely. For the filmmaker it is not so much the action itself that is important, it is rather the reasons for moving an individual and the feelings of his behavior. Drive is a sober film, made of deep gazes, love and brutality. All this is adorned by an impeccable neon photography which from this moment on will characterize the entire production of the Danish director.

While everyone is expecting the next mega production, Refn shoots a low budget film, practically silent, set in the suburbs of Bangkok, we’re talking of Only God Forgives. If his previous film was able to earn everyone’s agreement, this last effort has instead drastically divided audience and critics with those applauding the work of art and those profoundly bored or merely disgusted. What is certain is that Only God Forgives is a film that defines photography. Neon is mastered in every scene which, accompanied by the appropriate soundtrack, transports us into a dreamlike dimension where all the rest becomes meaningless.

And here we get to 2016, the year of his latest film release, presented in Cannes, it can be considered a real manifesto of his recent career: The Neon Demon. As the title itself says, neon becomes a fundamental presence in the movie. Its the story of the ruthless professional path that a pure and honest provincial girl, must go down to establish herself as a model in a bright and grotesque Los Angeles looming over his population as a ravenous demon. This film picks up the style of the deeply anti-natural photography, initially displayed in Drive and later brought to excess in the following productions, thanks to a seductive but at the same time repulsive direction where characters appear as dummies devoid of personality, continually crushed by an immutable primordial force (depicted by the luminous photography of Natasha Braier) silently operating in the city of angels’ streets.

Refn’s cinema comes out of the guts, in fact, the director loves to communicate with the public by borderline images able to easily impress our mind. It is however also a challenging cinema where, as can be seen in My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn, a documentary directed by his wife during the Thai period on the set of Only God Forgives, an extensive study is concealed. Now, however, in 2019 we will see the Danish director grappling with a serial project. The series in question is the Too Old To Die Young. We just have to wait a few months to see what will come out of it, in the meantime, we can get familiar with the neon light reviewing his previous works.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Filmography:

Pusher (1996)
Bleeder (1999)
Fear X (2003)
Pusher II (2004)
Pusher 3 (2005)
Valhalla Rising (2009)
Drive (2011)
Only God Forgives (2013)
The Neon Demon (2016)

Read our in-depth analysis of the cinema of the Coen brothers HERE.

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Collyrium – Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon cinema
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