Kristin Scott Thomas, director Nicolas Winding Refn and Cannes head Thierry Fremaux. Photo by Brian Brooks

“Get ready for a lot of violence,” one attendee who received early word about Nicolas Winding Refn's Cannes competition debut Only God Forgives said ahead of the film's early morning press screening Wednesday. That person wasn't kidding. Set in Bangkok's criminal underworld, the film stars Ryan Gosling (who also starred in Refn's well-received Cannes debut Drive two years ago)—alongside Kristin Scott Thomas, Tayaying Rhatha Phongam and Tom Buke—as a drug-smuggler who is compelled by his over-bearing mother to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother's recent murder.

Cannes has seen its fair share of heavily violent movies and this one still falls far short of Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, which is likely still the standard-bearer of cringe-inducing horror. But Only God Forgives, at least so far, appears to boast the highest dose of torture and blood spatter in competition. Beautifully shot, the film received a very Cannes-like mixture of boos, applause and whistles following its initial screening ahead of tonight's World Premiere.

“Art is an act of violence. Art is about penetration. Art is about speaking toward our subconscious and meanings at different levels,” Refn said today in Cannes. “I don't think about why I do things. Certain things turn me on more than others do. I can't suppress myself. I don't consider myself a violent man; I'd die if someone even looked at me mean. But I have a fetish for violent emotions and images. I can't explain where it comes from, but I do believe through art it's a way to exorcise certain feelings.”

A noticeable absence from the conversation this morning was Ryan Gosling, whose star cache is such that Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux took a moment out to read (in French) a letter from the actor who is away working on another project:

“Hi all. Can't believe I'm not In Cannes. I was hoping to come but I'm on week three shooting my film in Detroit. Miss you all. Nicolas, my friend, we really are the same persons in different dimensions. I'm sending you good vibrations. I'm with you all today, Nic, Kristin, Vithaya and the whole team. Go with God.”

Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Gosling's foul-mouthed mother, however, was present and even admitted that the violence is something she personally has a hard time bearing, telling a crowd of reporters today: “This kind of film is really not my thing. This kind of violence is not something I enjoy watching at all… When I saw [Refn's previous film] Bronson, I just thought it was beautiful and incredibly moving. There's something troubling but moving and that appealed to me. So when I was asked to be in this, I was excited about doing something different.”

Scott Thomas provided some of the film's most uncomfortable laughter in one scene stealer that The Weinstein Company and its sister distribution label Radius teased at a Fall Preview event earlier this week in Cannes. Without giving away too much, think of the most frightening thing a mother could say about her son to a potential girlfriend. This is worse.

“I thought, why don't we just say it—even if it's the worst possible thing,” said Scott Thomas, who acknowledged that her role is quite different from the upper-crust ones she is mostly known for. “A lot of the language… just happened as we were doing that scene. I think if it had been written and set up, we would have been terrified in the lead-up. But just doing it on the set allowed us to break certain barriers and get through these taboos.”

Continuing, she added: “When I first read the script, I was excited to play someone who's about as far away from the privileged, or upper class, thing that English people seem to love to see me in. So I was excited about that. But as the film became nearer and nearer, it just got more despicable.”

And as if on cue, Refn chimed in about his female lead: “She had no problem turning on the 'Bitch-Witch.'”

For more coverage of the 66th Cannes Film Festival, click here.