Nicolas Winding Refn Dissects His Bloody Confection
by Finn Cohen
Halfway though “The Neon Demon,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film about envy, duplicity and cannibalism on the Los Angeles fashion circuit, a smarmy designer forces a young man to judge two models. One of them, an icy product of plastic surgery, is manufactured, the designer says; the other, a 16-year-old waif (Elle Fanning) who transfixes everyone she meets, is an example of being “born beautiful.” Her boyfriend says that a person’s insides are what really matter.
“If she wasn’t beautiful,” the designer retorts, “you wouldn’t have even stopped to look.”
Audiences may soon feel the same about “The Neon Demon,” which opens Friday, June 24. A jarring, visually arresting fairy tale about self-worth in the selfie age, it’s full of shocks that are delivered like razor blades hidden inside cotton candy. Mr. Refn wraps rape, necrophilia, literal blood baths and a disturbing appearance by Keanu Reeves around brightly colored, fluorescent sets. Audiences and critics at this year’s Cannes Film Festival were outraged. A critic for The Daily Mail called for the film to be banned in Britain. But Mr. Refn insisted that his “funny movie” is more than just a vessel for titillation.
“You don’t get very far with being nice,” Mr. Refn, 45, said in a phone interview from Milan. “Creativity is meant to inflict opinions on you, or points of views, or leaving it up to you to make your own decisions, but it’s never meant to satisfy you.”
Mr. Refn, who is Danish but was raised in New York, has been drawn to extremes since his debut film, “Pusher” (1996), the first of a grim trilogy focusing on Copenhagen’s underworld. He attracted international attention with “Bronson” (2009), a comically brutal portrayal of “Britain’s most famous prisoner,” with Tom Hardy in the title role. And with Ryan Gosling in the lead role for “Drive” (2011), a hazy tribute to American car-chase films, Mr. Refn finally achieved commercial and critical success, winning the award for best director at Cannes. Mr. Refn’s name has at various times been attached to big-budget remakes, but his follow-up to “Drive” was widely panned: The garishly violent “Only God Forgives” (2013) featured Mr. Gosling as an impotent mama’s boy and a foul-mouthed Kristin Scott Thomas as his cruel mother, facing off against a stoic Bangkok detective who sings karaoke when he’s not mutilating victims with a sword.
Mr. Refn also shot fashion and advertising campaigns for Gucci and Lincoln (a series of commercials with Matthew McConaughey). Immersion in what he called “an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world” gave Mr. Refn an opportunity to create the horror film he had long sought.
“About two years ago, I woke up one morning and I thought, I wonder what it would be like having been born beautiful, because I wasn’t born beautiful, but my wife was,” said Mr. Refn, who is married to the Danish actress and filmmaker Liv Corfixen. “Now there was a way in; I could make a horror film about beauty, the obsession with beauty. Having two daughters and a wife, I can see how beauty very much steals a lot of time.”
“The Neon Demon,” in Mr. Refn’s mind, is a twisted take on “A Star Is Born.” Ms. Fanning’s character, Jesse, is an orphan trying to establish a modeling career in Los Angeles. Everyone she meets, from a macabre makeup artist (Jena Malone) to a lecherous motel owner (Mr. Reeves), sees her as the personification of natural beauty. But as she begins to outshine more experienced models and becomes intoxicated by her own power, their insecurities manifest themselves violently.
Mr. Refn, who wrote the script with the British playwright Polly Stenham and Mary Laws, said he was inspired to make “a film that would celebrate narcissism” after watching his 13-year-old daughter’s relationship to “the digital revolution.”
“I think my daughter’s generation and the generation of Elle Fanning are not really bound by the same taboos that I grew up under, of narcissism as a critique,” he explained. “They’re exposed to the digital world of images that, of course, they are reacting toward. But they’re all unattainable, because it’s an artificial world — it’s dead. In a way it kind of creates a form of insanity.”
In a phone interview, Ms. Fanning elaborated on this concept. “You’re constantly looking at your phone and these images that aren’t alive,” she said, and pointed out apps her friends use that allow them to appear thinner, with clearer skin, in photos. “Then when you see a person in the flesh with normal skin, then it’s automatically ‘ooh, that’s not perfect.’ That becomes not real, and then the image becomes what is the real thing. The connection to death and beauty, that combination is big in our movie.”
The gruesome results of Jesse’s descent into a superficial community involve scenarios that wouldn’t be out of place in fantasies of a teenage goth boy: lesbian shower scenes, medieval-looking corsets and human sacrifice. Aside from Jesse, the film’s female characters are conniving, bloodthirsty and often topless. But even though it is filtered through a male gaze, Mr. Refn says the film is “beyond feminism,” given his treatment of its male characters. He likens them to the minimal “girlfriend” role in many Hollywood movies.
“That was like the standing joke,” Mr. Refn said. “They were only there for plot devices. And once this film was done with all those characters, it had no need of men anymore. The male existence no longer functioned in the movie, and it became only about women.”
Referring to the film’s female characters, Ms. Fanning said: “I loved it because they’re not talking about a guy that they like. Each guy represents a different type of man, and it’s very much cut and dry, whereas the girls in our film, the characters are much more complex, and you can’t describe them as easily as you can describe the men.”
Mr. Refn said his wife “has never really been the biggest fan of my films.” He added: “I’m married to a true Scandinavian feminist. But she saw the movie, and she said to me at Cannes, ‘It’s better than “Drive.”’ And that was probably the biggest compliment I’ve ever gotten.”
Alejandro Jodorowsky, the 87-year-old Chilean director of “The Holy Mountain” and “El Topo,” has become a mentor of sorts to Mr. Refn. (He offered Tarot readings nearly every weekend during the filming of “The Neon Demon,” Mr. Refn said.) Mr. Jodorowsky pointed out that in mainstream films, the director’s imprint is often invisible. “The director is like an employee, not really a poet; here you see a personality,” he said of “The Neon Demon.” “The photography and the style is like the style of publicity. He uses this style of publicity to criticize publicity.”
The film can be ham-fisted in its use of metaphor, perhaps most strikingly with the presence of Mr. Reeves, who Mr. Refn says, “represents a certain aura of the mythology of Hollywood.” Casting such a symbol as a predator functions as a bit of a Trojan horse, he said. “Using Keanu in that world is very subversive because you automatically react one way when you first introduce him.
“At Cannes, people were applauding the minute he opens the door. There was this kind of familiarity in a very pleasurable way. But then once it starts to evolve into a completely different arena, everything in our expectations change.”
Mr. Refn sees “The Neon Demon” as a film about something “everyone has a very strong opinion about. Certain people will call it shallow, other people will see the complexity. And both are very true.” Being singular, he says, is the only way artists can distinguish themselves in a world full of distractions, so there’s no room to tread lightly.
“Ego and vanity and paranoia — that’s part of what it’s like being creative,” he said. “Those are great virtues, you just have to embrace them. Self-indulgence is a great thing.”