Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish auteur of testosterone soaked, artfully broody and characteristically violent crime dramas—Only God Forgives (2013), Drive (2011), Bronson (2008)—returns with an unexpected stiletto flick, Neon Demon (in theaters this weekend) sporting Elle Fanning as the female lead. A satire in its own right, the ‘teenage horror film’ (as Refn calls it) explores the glorification and dangers of editorial-worthy “beauty” in today’s society and the effects of our generation’s plague, narcissism, on its adolescent hosts.
Fanning’s, Jesse lands a modeling contract days after arriving in Los Angeles from a small town in Georgia. The 16 year-old orphan is quickly reassured she possesses “the thing” all women are supposed to be longing for. She’s advised to lie about her age and reminded continuously, by every person she encounters, that her beauty is superior.
Convinced of her own lack of talent and inability to offer anything but her perfectly sculpted features, Jesse dives, head first, down the rabbit hole of Los Angeles’ fashion scene (might have been more believable if such scene existed) where she crosses paths with a make-up artist (Jena Malone) obsessed with her, a designer (Alessandro Nivola) inspired by her, a landlord (Keanu Reeves) who nearly assaults her, a photographer (Desmond Harrington) who wants to dominate her and her competition (Bella Heathcote and model Abbey Lee) who literally want to devour her.
We’ve seen this weak-to-riches metamorphosis before; the innocent corrupted by beauty and power. It calls to mind the loss of innocence in Kubrick’s Lolita; the narcissistic starlet of Mankiewicz’s All About Eve; the flesh feast in Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty and most recently, the destructive competition for perfection in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. The film’s fish-out-of-water premise is nothing new, nor is the concept of a-star-is-born, but Refn’s adaptation revamps the fairytale by adopting runways as its backdrop and suggesting that our society’s obsession with beauty and narcissism is what triggers the transformation of its characters.
Neon Demon is a self-aware satire laced with verbal and visual metaphors about the fashion, beauty, and luxury industries (Who knew a closed-set photo shoot could have the same effect as a slaughter scene?) Cannibalism, necrophilia, and sadism serve as allegories for our youth and weight obsessed society that blurs the lines between the beautiful and dead: Cannibal models refuse to eat food unless it’s the flesh of their competition; a make up artist who paints fashion models also paints corpses (and she seems to enjoy her night job more); the art of posing is mastered when the model looks as close to dead as possible.
A visual and auditory orgy, what the film lacks in plot and dialogue, it makes up with score (by the brilliant Cliff Martinez) and cinematography (by Natasha Braier). Half a cup teen scream, a tablespoon of art house, two drops of fairy tale and a pinch of grindhouse, Refn’s recipe doesn’t go beyond euphemisms and pop culture metaphors when it comes to making a real commentary on the issues at hand. Surely a poor attempt at female empowerment but as far as escapism goes, it’s entertainment at its best.
We caught up with Refn on Neon Demon‘s opening day.
Considered an auteur of films defined by their heightened masculinity, how did you conceive the idea of tackling a female driven satire that grapples with idealism, ageism and narcissism?
Refn: Guess I found the 16–year-old inside of me and decided to make a movie about her.
And you have kids?
Refn: I have two daughters.
Did your kids influence your decision to take on this film?
Refn: It has certainly influenced my decision in wanting to make a teenage horror film. I very much believe that even though the future is unpredictable, it’s both very glorious and very dangerous.
Do you have talks with your kids about their generation’s tendencies towards narcissism?
Refn: Oh we talk a lot about it. That’s all you really can do is to help them navigate. Because you can’t really censor it. You can’t change it. You certainly can’t stop it. But if you can at least talk openly about it, and understand that every generation moves a step forward in the ladder of evolution. So what we are seeing now is just the human mind evolving.
Would you say the film condemns or embraces narcissism?
Refn: It celebrates narcissism because that’s the reality. I don’t think I can criticize anything that I’m interested in. And I think that what’s interesting is that for my generation narcissism was something that was a taboo. It was something negative. But I can see that for Elle (Fanning)’s and my children’s generation, narcissism has become a virtue. It’s encouraged; it’s a sign of success. Even though there are many dangerous sides to that, I also think there are things about it that are refreshingly positive.
Do you believe beauty to be a blessing or a curse?
Refn: I think it’s a weakness. It can be a curse and a blessing depending on how you look at it. But you surely can’t deny the impact and the power of it. And since you work in fashion, you know how complicated beauty is. It goes hand in hand with the assumption of being shallow. It’s very complex. Beauty is something everyone has an opinion about. The digital revolution dictates what’s beautiful and it’s very difficult to control that.
Did you intentionally seek out a female Cinematographer for this project?
Refn: You always try to get the best crew on a film. I was very lucky to have circumstances that led to me hiring Natasha (Braier) who was an incredible asset to the film. I used her for a few commercials even afterwards because I like working with her so much. And I knew also that making a film about women, it couldn’t hurt if there is a female DP. The more feminine you can make it, the better.
Why do you shoot in chronological order? What are the advantages?
Refn: It gives me the opportunity to react purely instinctual and I really like that. I find so much joy in the creativity of reacting. It’s the way I approach it, like a drawing.
Do you allow improvisation on set?
Refn: Oh yeah! Because everything constantly changes when you shoot in chronological order. Things are always evolving.
I watched a YouTube video that breaks down your visual techniques. It was about the Quadrant system, where you divide the screen into four equal parts to make extremely calculated and conscious compositions, which allows you to tell multiple stories within one frame. Is this a technique you use or is it people with too much time in their hands overanalyzing your compositions?
Refn: I haven’t seen it but sounds fascinating.
I will send it to you.
Refn: Please do. I do believe that you have to frame for all four corners. And I’d like to operate the camera.
Have you worked as a DP in the past?
Refn: No I’m color-blind. But I like to set up the frame myself each time and light it of course.
Why did you choose Amazon for the film’s distribution? Tell us your thoughts and predictions about the future in terms of shifting viewing habits of audiences.
Refn: Amazon has been great in coming up with a wonderful opportunity in terms of distributing Neon Demon. They came up with a very strong plan for theatrical release as well as streaming. We all know the best experience to see a film is in the cinema, but it’s not the only way to see a film. Streaming is forever so it’s equally as important. Cinema will never die. Things come in waves. Cinema is not just a screening room; it’s an event. It has to be something that’s more because everything else has become a digital link.
Why is it important for you to work with smaller budgets? Is your way of retaining artistic integrity?
Refn: Oh absolutely. Money is essentially what defines your control. I prefer to work with budgets that are not very high because it takes away the pressure off me in that I can truly do what I want, and still be creatively satisfied but also know that the business end will still work because those two elements go hand in hand.
Neon Demon is out in theaters this weekend.