Phie Ambo / Denmark / 2006
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn seemed to flounder with Fear X in 2003, a long cherished project that despite the positive reviews failed to save Refn’s company from bankruptcy. He followed up this dead end with an art-house coup, a move more in common with Hollywood blockbusters than European genre films. He made sequels to his ever popular debut, Pusher – a critical and vitally a commercial success also. Not content to follow up the holy cow of Pusher with just one sequel, Refn made two Pusher sequels back to back, a trick typically used in big budget sequels like The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions.
Phie Ambo’s jointly hilarious and harrowing documentary Gambler watches almost constantly through the pain and sometimes more pain, as Refn battles his way with sheer will and Alka-Seltzer all the way back to fiscal freedom. Similar to Lost in La Mancha this is a deconstruction of the filmmaking fantasy though unlike the Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe film it has a happy ending. Ambo seems to have almost unlimited access to Refn, dispassionately capturing some very grim moments indeed; watching a previously successful film maker weep on the couch in his austere flat at the imminent prospect of losing everything makes harsh viewing. Quite how Refn and his partner Liv tolerated Ambo’s presence boggles the mind even in these media addicted days where reality television and docudrama’s are two-a-plenty. Faced with financial wipe-out their arguments reach a certain pitch before tailing off.
The cynical heart of the Pusher sequels and Gambler are Refn’s intentions. He wants to get solvent again so he can make the film he really wants to make next, Billy’s People. Gambler shows a nuts and bolts approach to the practicalities of film financing. In one memorable scene Refn and his producer draw up a flowchart of companies to channel the predicted income in the right direction: the production of Billy’s People. Refn repeatedly refers to the venture as a means of clearing his debt. The original plan is for Pusher 2 to clear the debt and Pusher 3 to make the company money to spend on future work. Refn despairs though that everything he has done since Pusher is perceived as worthless despite the positive critical response. These manoeuvres are financially motivated so only previous financial success counts - Pusher. Refn despairs however of making a worthy artistic sequel to Pusher. In this cool dispassionate accounting view of his endeavour the Pusher sequels are mere cogs in the process. It’s almost stupefying to recall that Pusher 2 is certainly a worthy sequel to the original Pusher, all the more considering the money orientated gestation. My opinion is still undecided on Pusher 3, a good film but perhaps not in the same league as its predecessors.
Furthermore some of the environment in which Refn concocts Pusher 2 is also captured as well as the shoot. Although dictated by the beat of the accountant’s drum and written seemingly for bank ledger sheets, it’s revealing to see the prominence Ambo places on Refn’s new born daughter. As Gambler goes on to show, Refn’s quest for acting authenticity causes him additional grief casting Kurt Neilson aka Kusse-Kurt or Kurt the Cunt. Kurt is a guy who has done prison time and smoked pot in his own words ‘almost continually for 15 years’. Understandably perhaps Kurt doesn’t have the greatest short term memory. When the Danish press pick up on the fact that the cast of Pusher 2 appears slightly dodgy Kurt goes on the warpath, especially as he’s been going to Narcotics Anonymous for the last two years! Returning to Refn’s baby though, a baby is the focus of Pusher 2, and the moment in Gambler where Refn changes her nappy with Kurt’s help, washes away all his supposed sins and succinctly précis many of Ambo’s themes in Gambler.
Gambler is hysterically funny. You can never quite believe how far Refn will go to make his bridge between bankruptcy and artistic freedom, and more than occasionally it becomes distinctly uncomfortable as the consequences of the gamble solidify. And I didn’t even mention the framer who Refn is never able to pay!