Every year, at least one film splits the critics at Cannes. This year's monster is Nicholas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives, a revenge tragedy starring the coolest star of the moment, Ryan Gosling, along with a truckload of blood and guts.
Only God Forgives - Trailer
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Only God Forgives - Trailer
Julian, a drug-smuggler in Bangkok sees his life get even more complicated when his mother compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother's death.
The press screening was punctuated with the flap of seats as people left, one woman shouting "it's shit!" as she returned to civilisation. As the final titles rolled, the usual clapping was almost drowned out by boos and whistles – the opposite of appreciation in France – from the legions who hated it.
Then came the tweeting.
"ONLY GOD FORGIVES," capitalised Variety's Justin Chang. "And even that's being generous, really. Worthless."
The division in the foyer was between the staunch defenders and the outraged attackers – or, to put it in terms of the trade, between one-star reviews and five stars. Nobody was talking three-and-a-half. The Guardian critic reported that he was actually arguing with himself over which camp to back; he went with five stars in the end.
Nicholas Winding Refn directed last year's arthouse success Drive, a stylish heist story also starring Gosling that had its own moments of extreme violence. Only God Forgives is set in the Bangkok underworld; Gosling's Julian runs a kick-boxing gym that is a front for his family's drug ring, soon to meet its match in Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a monk-like vigilante cop who hunts down wrongdoers and delivers his own version of justice with the samurai sword he carries in a sheath on his back.
Julian falls into Chang's vortex after his brother Billy, a rapist and murderer, meets his death in a punishment killing organised on Chang's turf. Julian, on the orders of his monstrous mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), must now hunt Chang down through seemingly endless interiors of black and moist red, always lit from odd angles.
You wouldn't want to get in the way: the various protagonists' victims are beheaded with the sword, blinded with skewers, have their hands cut off or are simply mown down with a rifle in a wash of blood.
Winding Refn, who is Danish but was brought up in the United States, seems to thrive on combat with his audience. At the press conference for Only God Forgives, he said he approached filmmaking "like a pornographer: it's about what arouses me. Certain things turn me on more than other stuff and I can't suppress that."
Ultra-violence is his enthusiasm, he says, although he doesn't consider himself at all violent in real life. "I have surely a fetish for violent emotions and images and I can't explain where it comes from. I do believe it's a way to exorcise certain things. Art is an act of violence: it is about penetration, about speaking to our sub-conscious and our moods at different levels."
The film offers another kind of shock, too: seeing elegant Kristin Scott Thomas as a steely crime boss with a foul mouth, some seedy Oedipal urges and a serious cigarette habit.
I have surely a fetish for violent emotions and images. Art is an act of violence: it is about penetration.
"When I first read the script I was excited about playing someone far away from the upper-class thing that English people seem to love seeing me in," she said cheerfully. ''As we got nearer it got more and more despicable.''
The role was a "kick in the teeth" for her usual image, she admitted. Winding Refn said she "had no problem turning on the bitch witch".
In other news from Cannes today, there has been another suspected jewellery theft in the heart of the festival, this time of a single necklace worn by a model at an A-list party at the Cap D'Antibes, the resort 45 minutes away where the biggest stars stay.
According to jeweller De Grisogono, who provided the jewellery for the night, the diamond necklace was worth $US2.6 million, two and half times the estimated value of the earlier theft. Whether it was stolen at all is still not confirmed, however; police are also investigating the possibility that it is a problem of, er, inventory.
Finally, in an interview with Jeremy Renner for James Gray's The Immigrant, there was some discussion of his refusal to compromise on the kind of work he wanted to do. As a teenager fresh in Los Angeles, he revealed, he was asked to become part of a boy band. He refused.
A loss to us all, surely.