While sitting uncomfortably in the front row of a screening room earlier this week, I spent the time between my squirms and groans dreaming of bolting from the theater to find an idling DeLorean waiting for me on the street, ready to travel back in time convince director Nicolas Winding Refn to abandon The Neon Demon. Instead, I’ll forever be burdened with its memory.
The film, out today, opens with its star, Elle Fanning, covered in blood and draped on a couch. Is the blood real or fake? Is this a murder scene or a photo shoot? Though I eventually came to believe it was the latter on both counts, something to know about The Neon Demon (specifically Refn, who also wrote the script) is that I don’t think it wants the audience to choose. The blood? It’s both real and fake, when you think about it. And isn’t every photo shoot just murdering... the soul? This film doesn’t just want to have it both ways, it wants to have it every way. It wants to condemn narcissism as well as celebrate it. It wants to expose out the horrors of the fashion industry, but it also thinks those horrors are sort of sexy. And, worst of all, it thinks it can get away with its own contradictions by telling us we’re missing the point. And maybe I am! But I couldn’t possibly begin to care.
Would you like to know what this movie is about? If you plan on seeing The Neon Demon and prefer to be surprised, skip this paragraph. If not, I’ll explain it quickly, as there isn’t much to it. There is a 16-year-old girl, Jesse (Fanning), who moves to LA with the dream of becoming a model. After befriending a friendly-seeming makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone), an agent (Christina Hendricks) signs her immediately, two older models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) become jealous of her, a mountain lion (mountain lion) tries to kill her, two people (one of whom is Keanu Reeves) attempt to rape her, and then Ruby fucks a corpse. Oh, I almost forgot the cannibalism. There’s cannibalism too.
Though I’m generally a fan of horror films (that’s how Refn describes this one), I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy The Neon Demon’s particular brand of depravity. Regardless of your message (or whether or not you think brutality against children can be art), I will never in my life find it entertaining or defensible to watch a rapist—even a fictional one—force a 16-year-old girl to deep throat a knife. I will never laugh at a movie’s sole homosexual character revealing herself to be an amoral psychopath. I will never find it intellectually stimulating for a man to condemn women who are obsessed with beauty.
But perhaps I’m being unfair. Based on interviews with the film’s leads, the shoot appeared to be one of total comfort and respect. Fanning said she “trusted Nick right away, from the moment [they] met.” Lee has also praised Refn, who has a teenage daughter, saying he “was really open about having a discussion about certain elements in the film and seeing how we can make them more realistic and true to the industry.” Even Refn’s wife, to whom the film is dedicated, gave Refn her approval.
He told me that himself on Wednesday morning in the penthouse of the NoMo SoHo hotel. My initial post-viewing rage had subsided after discovering Refn co-wrote the screenplay with two women (Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) and hired a woman (Natasha Braier) as the film’s cinematographer, so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“To have a woman behind the camera felt very essential to the act of getting a woman’s perspective,” I said as he paced around the room. “Did that help with the comfort level?”
“I think so. I think so. The more women there was around, the more there was a kind of... natural,” he said, before pausing to find a new direction for his response. “I was the only guy in the wasp’s nest, but I enjoyed that.”
After that response—that suggestion that women are a temperamental, sexy nuisance—and the grin that accompanied it, I decided to to end our chat by revisiting a comment he made at the start of the interview—one I initially decided to disregard. “Earlier you said all men have a fantasy of being teenage girls. Do you still have that fantasy?”
“I’ve lived it out. It’s out of me,” he said.
“Why do you think men do have that fantasy? Because I personally don’t.”
“I think that the more masculine you want to become, the more feminine you need to be.” I don’t know what he meant by that, but I could tell he thought it sounded good. Refn openly welcomes the controversy surrounding The Neon Demon, but like that statement, it’s all style, and and an inflated sense of substance.
I hated every godawful second of it.
Image via Amazon Studios.