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CANNES (Reuters) - An ultra-violent thriller set in the Bangkok underworld of brothels and fight clubs came under attack at the Cannes film festival on Wednesday for its bloodletting which Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn defended as art.
"Only God Forgives" by Refn, who won the best director award at Cannes two years ago, is the story of Julian, an American fugitive played by Canadian Ryan Gosling, who runs a boxing club in the Thai capital as a front for a drug business.
After his brother is murdered for killing a prostitute, his gangster mother played by a chain-smoking, peroxide blonde Kristin Scott Thomas arrives demanding the heads of his killers, including a mysterious policeman handy with a sword.
As the family seeks revenge, the God-like policeman decides their fate, with blood splattered throughout the film that is sparse on dialogue but heavy on imagery with many scenes set in claustrophobic corridors darkly lit in blood red.
In one scene a hitman is pinned to a chair with four skewers while his eyes are gauged out and in another a sword splits open a gunman's chest, blood gushing and ribs exposed.
The film sharply divided critics at Cannes. Some people walked out of a press screening and others booed at the end, while some critics described it as "aesthetically brilliant".
Refn, whose film "Drive" also starring Gosling received a standing ovation at Cannes in 2011 and won him the best director award, defended the violence in his film that is one of 20 competing for the main prize at the world's top cinema showcase.
"Art is an act of violence. Art is about penetration ... I approach things very much like a pornographer and it is about what arouses me," Refn told a news conference, without Gosling who was in Detroit working on his directorial debut.
"I don't consider myself a very violent man ... but I have a fetish for violent emotions, violent images and I can't explain where it comes from but I believe through art, it is way to exorcise certain things in you."
Scott Thomas, 52, who made her name playing aristocratic British women in films such as "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "The English Patient", plays against type as the evil mother who struts through the movie in leopard print dresses and stilettos.
She said taking a role in "a hyper-violent, quite disturbing" movie was new for her, as was using the most vulgar language they could conjure up.
"This kind of film is really not my thing," she said, adding that the appeal of the film was working with 42-year-old Refn.
The film sharply divided critics.
Peter Bradshaw from the Guardian gave it a top five-star rating, but acknowledged it would have some people running for the exits due to its violence.
"But Winding Refn's bizarre infernal creation, an entire created world of fear, really is gripping. Every scene, every frame, is executed with pure formal brilliance," he wrote.
Sasha Stone from Awards Daily regretted spending 90 minutes watching the film, saying it did "not exist for any reason except to get people off on the artistry of killing".
Another film in the main competition at Cannes dealing with revenge also held its premiere on Wednesday, "Grigris", the fifth film from Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun who won the 2010 Cannes jury prize for "A Screaming Man".
It is the story of a partly crippled, dance-loving social outcast known as Grigris, who gets involved with a gasoline smuggling racket to raise money for his sick stepfather.
Grigris and his friend, mixed race prostitute Mimi, are forced to go on the run when he sells some gasoline and keeps the money and his boss sends henchman to kill him.
Critics described the film as geographically vivid but with characters that felt under-developed.
So far, 14 of 20 films competing for the Palme d'Or award that is presented on Sunday have been rated by critics.
An aggregate of critics' reviews, compiled by trade magazine Screen, put the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" at the top of the table followed by China's "Tian Zhu Ding" (A Touch of Sin), Iran's "Le Passe" (The Past) and Italy's "La Grande Bellezza" (The Great Beauty).
Editing by Robin Pomeroy