In The Neon Demon, L.A. constantly pulses with heavy bass, its lights shrouding perfectly toned bodies in a glowing haze of pinks, yellows, and reds. This is the universe of Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) whose latest film, a glittering but insidious world, where a new girl can simply show up and take the fashion industry by storm, inspiring a ravenous envy in every other model she meets. Models who would, and will, kill to be her. The object of obsession in Refn's new movie is Jesse (Elle Fanning) a dewy skinned, orphaned teen with eyes so big and a face so earnest she seems doomed from the very first frame.
Jesse signs with an agency almost immediately upon arriving in the city, and snags a test shoot with one of the industry's most admired photographers. She's befriended by makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who tells Jesse to call her any time, insisting that it's important to have good girls around. But when beauty is the only currency anyone's trading in, good girls are hard to come by (turns out not even Ruby can be trusted). When a designer books Jesse for his show over longtime model Sarah (Abbey Lee) and casts her to walk the finale look over Sarah's friend Gigi (Bella Heathcote), it's clear the other models' feelings toward their new rival are far more sinister than simple jealousy.
Refn's neon demon comes in many forms—a mountain lion that gets into Jesse's motel room when she leaves the door open, the look of despair on Sarah's face when she tells Jesse, "I'm a ghost." But we get a glimpse of the neon demon in its truest form as Jesse walks the fashion show. She emerges into a pitch black room, and walks the runway toward three hovering neon triangles that seem to appear as if in a vision. As Jesse reaches them, she looks up to see three reflections of herself.
On the eve of The Neon Demon's release, Sweet spoke with Danish director Refn over the phone about his stylish new film.
So, what is the neon demon?
Well, I would say The Neon Demon is about the complexity of beauty, which, on one level can be very superficial, but it very quickly becomes quite complicated, because it doesn't take very much for us to start arguing about it.
The philosophy of the designer toward models and beauty is obviously a bit of a parody of the modeling world, but how much truth is there, to you, in his statement, "Beauty isn't everything, it's the only thing"?
Let me ask you a question. What do you think?
Anyone's initial response is going to be to reject that beauty is the "only thing." But everything we do is about pleasure seeking, really. Isn't that a form of beauty? The way we dress, the cars we drive, the jobs we take—they're a form of constructing beauty. But what do you think?
I completely agree with you.
Great. When Jesse walks the finale in the designer's show, she has a beautiful hallucinatory moment where she sees her face refracted in mirrors. Is this a moment where she sort of sells her soul to the neon demon?
It's like Narcissus; she fell in love with her own reflection, and becomes now a full-fledged neon demon.
Is that why she says that her mother used to call her "dangerous"?
Yes. There's a whole subplot through the movie that reveals itself at various places, saying that maybe Jesse's not so innocent after all. Maybe she's actually an evil Dorothy coming to poison the Wizard.
I'm an entertainer. I'm here to entertain you. I'm a showman.
Do you see the other girls in the film as embodying any other fairy-tale archetypes?
You can say that (Jena) Malone is like the evil witch. She's essentially just hurting because she longs for love. The two models are her henchmen, out to collect Snow White. A lot of the characters are very much based on the fairy-tale mythology, very much like I did in Drive.
And the three neon triangles we see throughout the film?
Triangles are the satanic symbol of the neon demon. It's like the three women (Ruby, Sarah, Gigi); each line represents a female form. It's also the symbol of femininity in the old sagas.
Of course, neon is everywhere in the movie. All the surfaces are so textural, like they're metallic.
It becomes a heightened reality. There's no technology in the movie, no cellphones, no computer or selfies. There are no drugs, no alcohol. Nothing that's now. It's much more futuristic in its subtext. It needs to have this artificial surface, like a fashion magazine. Just like the music is only artificial, electronic sounds.
I heard there were audible negative reactions to the film at Cannes. I'm sure that must have excited you a little. What did you think about that?
I'm very aware of my audience when I make my films. I am one of them. I'm an entertainer. I'm here to entertain you. I'm a showman. All I make movies for is the audience. I also love when I hear women talking about [the film] more than men. It's so much more interesting. Women have a much more advanced view of it.
The Neon Demon opens in theaters today. To learn more about Nicolas Winding Refn's gorgeous, sinister world, visit theneondemon.com.