Netflix has taken a daring gamble: producing a series a bit intellectual, not to say demanding, in the middle of its catalog overflowing with accessible products, easy to approach, even unifiers. In the department of feature films, there are many risk takings that have turned into memorable stunts: we remember The Power of the Dog of Jane Campion, a contemplative and Machiavellian western, of Marriage Story of Noah Baumbacha chronicle of a rupture that seeks dignity in accuracy, or even of The King by David Michôd, epic Shakespearean drama.
Admittedly, the brand with the red N knows how to attract authors, big names in the seventh art and promising films of good quality (David Fincher, Bong Joon-ho, Martin Scorsese…). But what about series? Beyond its great successes, between Stranger ThingsMoney Heist and Squid Gamewe notice the recent box of wednesdaywith another sacred movie monster at the helm: Tim Burton.
Introducing Nicolas Winding Refn to Netflix’s stable might seem like a coherent choice. However, it should be kept in mind that, since his critical and public success with Drive (an enjoyable homage to the B series of the 1980s and prize for directing at Cannes), the Dane quickly radicalized in an aesthetic universe which, in its surrealist expression with a touch of narcissism, can annoy as much as fascinate.
Moreover, the director did not wait for the plebiscite collected by Drive to prefer form to content, without ever trying to caress the viewer in the direction of the hair. Already, Valhalla Rising and his metaphysical-telluric trip in the open sea initiated this trend, between two eviscerations viking style.
The lucky charm that sows misfortune
Before returning to its native lands for this six-episode miniseries, NWR had already explored the serial format with Too Old to Die Young (broadcast by Amazon Prime), brilliant dive into the world of corrupt police and a Mexican cartel elevating the notion of revenge to the rank of total ceremonial art. What was already striking was this tendency to take its time, to stretch out the plot in a languid rhythm, bathing it in acidulous lights and chiaroscuros saturated by the pale glow of neon lights, refusing any notion of realism to better precipitate the narrative in a violence to the edge of fantasy.
This shift from esthete thriller to fantasy tale takes place at the end of Too Old to Die Youngbut NWR goes further in Copenhagen Cowboy. From the first sequences, his silent staging, stingy with landmarks, exhausts the shots to better lose the viewer. We nevertheless understand that Miu (Angela Bundalovic), the main character – a young woman with boyish looks living in a brothel run by a family of crooks from the Balkans – has the mysterious power to bring good luck to anyone who uses her services.
She is nevertheless driven by a thirst for revenge, the ins and outs of which we will never really grasp, rendering service before sowing death and desolation. Talk about a lucky charm!
Later, she cures a triad leader’s migraines and earns his respect. She then plunges into the world of the underworld to orchestrate the reunion of a child and her mother, not without having, along the way, precipitated a few encounters in death and administered a few beatings with great blows of kung-fu grips worthy of the best Bruce Lee, not without recalling Only God Forgives (this failure in a fantasized Bangkok where the pretentious kitsch of the staging mixed in an infamous porridge the notions of karma, animism and spirit worship).
The pimp mother at the beginning of the plot uses the term demona to designate Miu. To tell the truth, this character is located at the edge and at the crossroads: salutary fairy, exterminating angel, solitary demon. NWR does not decide and paints its portrait in an abstract way, sketching the idea that it constitutes only one element of a whole. Evidenced by this scene, in the last episode, where Miu meets her fellow creatures in the forest: young women dressed like her in a blue jumpsuit and coming out of nowhere. Without any exchange of words, they recognize each other, regroup, move forward together to meet their destiny.
A staging that is contemporary art
When we know that Nicolas Winding Refn has already distinguished himself as a luxury “pubard” for brands like Gucci, Yves-Saint-Laurent or H&M, we are hardly surprised to see him take care of his plans to the point of choreographing with precision every movement and location of the characters within its frame. He plays with symmetries, places a halo of light behind his heroine’s head or moves his camera like a Kubrick in Clockwork Orange Where shining : dizzying circular tracking shots, shots of grimacing faces petrified by madness, tableaux vivants.
Served by Cliff Martinez’s dark and chic electro, the series takes on the appearance of a big-budget music video, oscillating between contemporary art performances where meaning gives way to concept and dreamlike trip orchestrated by a demiurge who watches himself film with relish by invoking the tutelary figures of great masters like Alfred Hitchcock (NWR has fun assigning itself a small silent role, as the master of suspense liked to do) or David Lynch.
If the latter trusts the intelligence of the viewer to project his own neuroses into his work and indulge his own spiritual and psychological sensitivities, the Dane pushes the surrealist aesthetics of his world to the extreme, to such an extent that ‘one quickly accepts the idea that looking for answers will be futile.
We vaguely understand that the bourgeois family recluse in its castle is similar to a line of vampires, whose daughter (played by that of the director, Lola), plunged into a secular sleep, comes out of her coffin to go hunting after having recovered his strength by tasting a human heart, the fuel necessary to unleash his devastating powers. We leave you the surprise of the bewildering shot of its disturbing demonic face turned towards its prey lost in the distance, in the forest.
Nicolas Winding Refn cultivates a certain idea of what could be called the staging of the gap. It doesn’t matter that his story takes place in Copenhagen: we don’t recognize much of the city. The world he depicts is meant to be dirty, dark and disturbing, and he shows himself to be at the same time sanitized, cold and unreal. Let us not, however, confuse gaping with emptiness. Copenhagen Cowboyabstruse even in its title, reveals few of its secrets, but is filled with elements that invite the viewer not to seek answers, but to agree to undertake a hallucinogenic journey that invokes the ghosts that Miu sees on his road and those that we invent to fill the silent spaces that invade this restaurant without customers, this overly huge mansion, these offices with minimalist decor.
Like The Neon Demonwho navigated the deleterious superficiality of the cruel and literally cannibalistic world of fashion, Copenhagen Cowboy shows itself icy and chilling, but offers a sophisticated, hypnotic and bewitching aesthetic. And, therefore, elegant as well as frightening. If the cinema allows us to survey parallel worlds, this series, which even offers the possibility of a sequel, transforms us, in the end, into butterflies attracted by the electric light supposed to repel us.
Available on Netflix January 5, 2023.