But violence does not consist so much in injuring and annihilating persons as in interrupting their continuity, making them play roles in which they no longer recognize themselves…
Emmanual Levinas, Preface to Totality and Infinity (trans. Alphonso Lingis, Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969).
For the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the foundation of violence is the reduction of the Other to the Self. In other words, violence turns another person into what you make of them; it is the exercise of power to subjugate another’s freedom to your wishes. And I don’t know if I’ve ever seen violence so eloquently portrayed as the final scene of Bronson.
Bronson is a dramatic movie, not a drama per se in the limited sense but a celebration of the showman, the auteur. Nicolas Winding Refn is the perfect man to tell this story—himself a prodigious auteur with hyper-stylized taste. My first exposure to Refn was (like many others) Drive (2011), his Cannes-darling that I nevertheless hated to everyone I know’s disbelief. I found the film repulsively inauthentic and pretentious (and I didn’t make it far into Only God Forgives (2013) either). At the same time, I was amazed to find that Valhalla Rising (2009) instantly became one of my favorite films. So maybe I’m the fickle one, regardless I find Refn’s obsession with stylization to be his blessing and curse. And (here’s where this rant becomes relevant), I think it’s no accident that Refn’s favorite (only?) subject is violence.
A strong auteuric vision is, naturally, a violent thing. It’s controversial (the Danes are so good at this); it’s the kind of narrow focus that limits organic possibilities within a work. At his best (usually his), the auteur brings a story to its maximal expression. At worst, the auteur’s limited sense of taste forces a work to be something it’s not (i.e. does violence to the story). In Bronson, Refn is at his best—taking a sensational story and telling it even more sensationally. There is, certainly, at least one parallel between Refn and the real life Bronson: both are men who consider themselves artists of particular flair. Refn, notably, is a filmmaker; Bronson, a criminal. As the film so cleverly explores, Bronson’s canvas is other people.
Back to the final scene. After multiple incarcerations and an extended stint in an asylum, Bronson distinguishes himself in an inside art class. His teacher is an optimist; he recognizes a particular voice within Bronson’s work and sets out to push Bronson’s release so that he can find his true calling: that of a fine artist. In his optimism, the teacher fails to see what everyone else knows: Bronson’s medium is people. And so, in the final sequence of the film, Bronson restrains his teacher, paints himself black (best understood as making himself a negative, this is a European not American film after all), and proceeds to draw his own face on the teacher. It is his masterwork, the truest expression of his passion and violence.
I found Bronson fascinating on many levels. For one, it is entertaining. Actually, I should say, I found it entertaining—since I think the resonance of the film depends a lot on its dramatic flair, masculinity, and even heteronormativity. It is on these registers that the film is so intriguing. Drawing on the history of showmanship, Refn lets Hardy narrate Bronson’s story in a variety of direct address settings: in a blackbox, in front of a theater audience, and in a hybrid of the two. Throughout the film, I couldn’t help but feel how male these objective forms of discourse are and, perhaps, how male these ways of storytelling and entertainment might be. I can’t afford to say more right now but I think a fascinating post could compare this film with one of, say, Jane Campion (even Top of the Lake which is shot through with patriarchy in a way equally self-aware but less indulgent).
Along with these questions (perhaps directly alongside), Bronson asks a lot about the relation of violence and storytelling, including the possibilities for violence within storytelling. This is a meditation for which Refn makes a fantastic case study. After all, what do we directors do if not turn other people into characters we imagine? How is that so different than Bronson’s project? His works, like ours, were never permanent. Bronson is famous, after all, for being the man sentenced to life imprisonment without ever killing a soul.