“You’re going to be great,” a hip talent agent (Christina Hendricks) tells young, new model, Jesse (Elle Fanning), early on in Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir thriller The Neon Demon. The two are alone in the agent’s rustic office, which overlooks the shiny skyline of downtown Los Angeles, looming miles away behind Jesse. In an ironic twist, she warns her new client that “people believe what they’re told.”
The City of Angels is anything but heavenly in Refn’s stylish thriller. This is a velveteen hell overwhelmed with naive cherubs, who clutch false hopes of brighter futures as they’re sucked dry by the monsters looking down from above. It’s a delectable experience, though, elevated by the Danish filmmaker’s knack for capturing unforgiving stories through ruby-cut cinematography dripping with style.
But The Neon Demon is far from a filmic subscription to Vogue. It’s an unflinching statement about our narcissistic culture that’s so obsessed with beauty that it’s become a form of currency, as Alessandro Nivola’s suave fashion designer proclaims three-quarters into the film. Rather than condemn this notion, Refn’s film embraces this idea, zeroing in on the power that comes from self-adulation.
“I come from a generation where narcissism was a taboo,” Refn explains from a sofa, tucked away in a sprawling vanilla suite in Chicago’s towering Waldorf Astoria. “My children are in Elle’s generation, and it seems to me now that there’s an acceptance in a way that’s completely opposite. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
It’s late in the morning, a shade under 10 o’clock, and Refn looks like he’s just walked off a Bond film. To his right sits his leading star, Fanning, a currency unto herself, beaming with a smile that could turn the ugliest cynic into a ball of wonder.
“Nic said something that was interesting to me,” she starts. “He said, ‘Beauty is like a stock that keeps going up,’ you know, beauty will never go out of style. I don’t know if that is a scary thing, but it’s a very powerful thing in our society for sure.”
Fanning’s Jesse is an aspiring 16-year-old model who’s boldly self-aware. She knows she can’t sing, she knows she can’t dance, and she knows she has no real talent. But she knows she’s pretty and knows where pretty can get her in this world. That’s a feeling Fanning wrestled with early in production.
“When I met Nic for the first time, he asked me, ‘Do you think you’re beautiful?'” she continues. “No one’s ever asked me that before, and it’s also a question that is very taboo; it makes you uncomfortable. And I was thinking, But why does that make me so uncomfortable? I guess if I would have said yes, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re a complete narcissist.'”
Maybe, maybe not.
“But then there’s another side to it,” Fanning adds, “where you’re supposed to love yourself, and people teach you that you should think you’re beautiful, but there’s a line to it. You can’t step any further over that line.”
Needless to say, Jesse sprints past any such humility. As more and more doors are opened, she quickly embraces her power. “I don’t want to be them, they want to be me,” she insists to her confused photographer Dean (Karl Glusman). Later on, she shakes down Jena Malone’s wickedly maternal Ruby, coldly stating: “I know what I look like.”
She’s dangerous, almost villainous, but even so, The Neon Demon never abandons its own philosophy that “beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Namely because its creators are far too realistic to ever shy away from the truth.
“Beauty is still such a complex theme,” Refn offers. “It doesn’t take very long to start arguing about it. It’s a subject everyone can relate to and everyone has an opinion about it. So I think for me, it was something like, ‘Well, the reality is that we live in a beauty-obsessed culture, the reality is we’ve always done so, and the reality is as fashion, design, and looks change, it still boils down to the same thing.
“As a stock, it gives you options,” Refn continues, “I mean … let’s not kid ourselves, in a way, beauty is one of the defining factors of a futuristic class system. You can even almost pre-decide your children: ‘What would I want? Well, I’d certainly want this.’ It’s very interesting, and in order for us to really move with it, we have to accept its existence.”
“I think that people are looking at themselves more than ever with things like selfies,” Fanning adds. “Like, teenagers, we’re constantly looking at our faces and subconsciously comparing ourselves to other people and magazines and Instagram, so it’s just very relevant now. It’s kind of like a self-obsession that people don’t admit to, but it’s there.”
As a cautionary coming-of-age tale, The Neon Demon is a very prescient role for Fanning. Two weeks before the film’s release, she graduated from high school, and back in April, she celebrated her 18th birthday. She was 16 when filming began two years ago, and now her entire adult life is at her fingertips, a feeling not too dissimilar from her on-screen persona, Jesse.
“I brought a lot of myself to her,” Fanning admits. “Being a 16-year-old girl, I knew how that feels. I also moved from a small town to LA like her — we made her from Georgia, like I’m from Georgia. I also started acting when I was young, so I related to being the youngest in a room. I knew how that felt, how people look at you, wanting to figure you out. You’re the fresh meat — you know, ‘What are your intentions?’ But you’re like, ‘I’m just a … I have none, I’m innocent to this.'”
Such innocence eventually turns poisonous for Jesse. The young girl’s Dantesque journey begins once her pseudo-mentor, Ruby (Malone), walks her into the dark, flashy underbelly of the modeling world. It’s here where all her golden opportunities await and where rival cover girls like Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) watch nearby like a pack of hyenas. They’re unforgiving, remorseless, and starving — but so is Jesse.
“We said she was like Dorothy in Oz if Dorothy was evil,” Fanning laughs. “To me, I think that she’s kind of the most evil in the film. Because she comes in, and I feel like she’s had this plan all along, and the way that it worked out, that was her plan. It was this growing power that she has over people, and she started to just love herself so deeply, and I feel like she’s had this past life or something. She’s like this thing that comes in, this creature…”
Refn captures this eerie metamorphosis with lush, tasty visuals that flood the senses and overwhelm the mind. Think Dario Argento, think David Lynch, think Stanley Kubrick, think John Carpenter. It’s every designer’s fantasy: a total dream that’s both of this Earth and out of this world. And none of it would gel without the surreal, aural landscapes of composer Cliff Martinez.
A former drummer for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Captain Beefheart, and Lydia Lunch, the 62-year-old composer initially broke into film after scoring Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 breakthrough indie hit, sex, lies, and videotape, a partnership that’s continued ever since and ultimately led to his latest ventures with Refn.
The Neon Demon marks their third collaboration together — fourth, if you count Liv Corfixen’s My Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn — and Martinez’s compositions have certainly added a flavorful touch to Refn’s stoic ouevre. In a way, each score serves as a ghostly narrator, haunting the filmmaker’s trademark long shots with an ambient glaze that’s meditative and comforting.
“I think with Traffic I really noticed that one of the effects of so-called ambient music was that it seemed, at times, to take on the point of view of some omniscient overseer who wasn’t judging what was going on,” Martinez explains over the phone. “I call it the God POV because it seems like even though people are doing drugs and murdering one another and doing awful, evil things, the music is just saying, ‘This is what happens on planet earth.'”
Martinez flourishes on the fringes of society, shedding light on the tragic beauty or the subliminal misery of these desolate terrains and oft-ignored antiheroes. With 2011’s Drive, he countered the film’s modern new wave of Chromatics, Desire, and College by highlighting the film’s salient moments, adding pathos and intrigue to Ryan Gosling’s silent, tortured hero who says everything by saying nothing at all.
For 2013’s cruelly maligned Only God Forgives, Martinez was given more space to stretch his muscles, influencing the loose narrative with his emotional textures. Similar clemency applies to The Neon Demon, only his sounds are pushed even further into the foreground with a sensual mix of industrial dark disco and embalming fairy dust that not only draws in viewers but slowly subverts their expectations.
“I think part of the job of music is to universalize the story,” Martinez continues. “Nobody wants to watch a movie about really normal people doing normal things. They want to watch something that’s really out of the ordinary, but they want to relate to it nonetheless. You have to touch them and make it seem like at some point it’s their lives. I think that’s the gig.”
It’s a little more complicated than that. “For the most part, you have to make a decision as to whose point of view is the music going to project,” Martinez continues. “For most of the film, I felt like I wanted to get inside Jesse’s point of view. Then there’s the audience’s point of view. A lot of times, I resisted doing that — like the gold paint scene.
“That’s kind of a yucky, male predatory, exploitative scene,” he digresses. “That’s the obvious point of view that I think the audience might take. But I think, for the photographer, and for Jesse, they’re just having a great time, and I’m gonna play it like that. Just this wonderful artistic collaboration between the two of them. I thought that would be a little more perverse and interesting.”
There’s undoubtedly a spiritual link between Refn and Martinez. Talking to the composer, it’s easy to see why the filmmaker has subscribed to his methods for the better half of a decade. They’re both concerned, or rather deeply invested, with concepts that inspire their audiences to warm up parts of their brain. As Martinez contends, “When you get into somebody else’s head, into a place where the audience isn’t prepared to be — that’s all really powerful stuff.”
Then again, it could simply boil down to personal fascinations. With The Neon Demon, Refn, who co-wrote the screenplay with English playwright Polly Stenham and first-time writer Mary Laws, appears to be chewing on deep-seated philosophical fears that have been swimming in his head for years.
“If you asked me, ‘What is beauty?’ I would say for me, beauty is weakness,” he begins. “But, I can’t deny the fact that if something is beautiful, I look, I desire it. That conflict — you can’t just politicize it in good moral values that you’re brought up by society with. The sense of, we all want equality, therefore, people can’t be judged. Well, guess what, you judge every day. So I think, in order to accept the future, you have to also accept the evolution of it. And I think that’s what’s interesting about the younger generation. I hate to say the younger generation because it makes me feel old [laughs] — but that idea of a digital revolution becoming a narcissistic reality, but seeing the world of quality.
“I find it very odd that I’m 44, so that means that I’m the generation that can judge Elle’s generation. Elle is a few years older than my eldest daughter. So we can judge that generation like my parents judged my generation. But what’s interesting is that while we’re judging it, it’s all based on our so-called fears of what we think we’ll become. But, if we were that age, we would just do it ourselves. So how can we be critical of something that we just don’t understand or are afraid to accept or fear the consequences of?”
He leans forward and looks to Fanning, who nods and keeps listening.
“One of the things that is, of course, horrific in the world of beauty is the youth obsession,” Refn concludes. “I have a 13-year-old, she’s obviously the prey — I mean, she’s a lamb. So, her children are obviously gonna be even younger. So, the idea is that if beauty is an obsession that continues to rise, the longevity shrinks, and it’s becoming younger and younger and younger, there must be some kind of feeding cycle, essentially, some kind of ceremonial evolution or else I don’t see what’s gonna happen. It’s extremely terrifying, because one of the things that beauty is also about is innocence — it’s purity, it’s virginity. And that means whatever becomes young and younger, you reach out for. So, it’s maybe no longer the physical beauty, but then it becomes about everything else that’s inside … and you just want to eat that.”
Well, let’s hope it never comes to that.