News Column

Cannes 2013 reviews

May 23, 2013

YellowBrix

By Tara Brady

Only God Forgives

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringham, Rhatha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke

In competition, 90 min

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It seems only right and proper that the most talked about film in the run-up to this year's Festival de Cannes would, in turn, become the most contentious. Following on from 2011's Drive , director Nicolas Winding Refn's second collaboration with actor Ryan Gosling promised a blaze of heat and fury. The colour scheme - a furnace of bloody reds, evil blacks and gaudy Bangkok streetlight - never lets us down. The tone is sky high but consistent as it tracks between Wicked Witch of the West and full-blown Freudian nightmare, replete with mutilations, eye-bothering, dragon imagery and pointedly (that is the right word) phallic swordplay.

On the surface, Only God Forgives looks like a straightforward Muay Thai vengeance cycle. As the film opens, Gosling's oddly hapless Julian stands back as his brother, a relentlessly nasty piece of work, prowls the Thai streets in search of a 14-year-old girl. His quest ends with the death of a teenage prostitute and his own grisly demise: the pair might well have drowned in bodily fluids by the time Refn's bloodwork team have been and gone.

Enter Kristin Scott Thomas's terrifying mommy dearest, a drug- dealing moll with a queasy, mythological grip on her son's loyalty and affections. Her attitude to the death of her first-born is simple: so what if he raped and killed a 15-year-old, she purrs, "I'm sure he had his reasons".

It falls to Julian to take arms against Vithaya Pansringham's ill- defined police officer, a character billed as Chang, the Angel of Vengeance in the credits. It's an apt title. There's something supernatural about Chang, who seems to possess the capacity to disappear, to read minds and to haunt dreams.

Then again, there's something decidedly supernatural about this entire enterprise. It does not take long for the viewer to realise that Refn's repeated allusions to Kubrickian dimensions and to The Shining in particular are pointing towards a creepy in-uterine context. If Chang - like the antiheroes of late John Ford pictures - is the brute force required to keep lesser brute force in check, Scott Thomas is the fierce maternal, a familial bond that tips into possessive, incestuous hysterics.

"It is impossible for you to enter," sings Chang in one of the film's compelling, strange karaoke interludes. It is equally impossible to escape Refn's crazy, compelling womb space.

Don't believe the haters. Only God Forgives may not be as accessible as Drive but it's fabulous in every sense of the word.

Grigris

Directed by Mahamat Saleh-Haroun

Starring Soulmane Dm, Mariam Monory, Cyril Guei, Marius Yelolo

In competition, 100 min

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Mahamat Saleh-Haroun, the great Chad filmmaker, won awards here a few years ago with A Screaming Man . His first-class new picture is a simpler, less obscure piece. But it still has plenty to say about social exclusion and Africa's current condition.

Charismatic non-professional Soulmane Dm plays the title character, a dancer coping brilliantly with a withered leg. One of the lesser themes of Grigris is the need to make and do in this society. Vehicles are patched together. The black market fills economic gaps. Grigris improvises a style of dancing that makes positive advantage of his disability: the leg is whirled around like a baton; at one stage it stands in for a machine gun.

It looks as if the hero is getting on reasonably well with his humble life. He gets tips in the disco. He works in his stepfather's photography studio. His mother takes in laundry. They're getting by - surviving, at any rate - until financial pressures trigger a catastrophe. In order to raise money for his stepfather's medical bills and to help out a local girl he fancies, the hero signs up to work with petrol smugglers. Soon, his life is in danger.

Cinematic purists will find much to admire in Saleh-Haroun's gift for composition. Keeping the camera relatively still, he arranges trees and characters with the balanced grace of a great stills photographer. But the film is also a properly gripping story of folly, courage and pursuit. Alhough given little dialogue, Grigris emerges as a nuanced, eccentric hero, about whom it is impossible not to care.

Some may find the ending just the tiniest bit convenient. And yet, urging unity between the more sat-upon elements in Chad's society, the final outpouring of righteous violence is very much in tune with the rest of this generous, inclusive film. Let's hear it for the weak and the disenfranchised.

Originally published by Tara Brady.

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