In his new movie “The Neon Demon,” Nicolas Winding Refn demonstrates how the pursuit of beauty can wind up with beauty being devoured — and it’s not a metaphor.
“Beauty is very complex,” says Refn during a recent visit to The City to promote the film, which opens Friday. “On one level it can be very shallow. And on another level it can be extremely sophisticated. The movie moves through a form of mutation. It never asks what it is.”
Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a small-town girl who has moved to Los Angeles to work as a model. Her simple, unadorned, unfettered beauty wins over everyone she meets.
Refn says there are “three types of beauty in the film.” Jesse clashes with two other models, Sarah (Abbey Lee, a pro supermodel), who fears aging, and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) who has enhanced her looks with surgeries.
“That spectrum is what Jesse walks into,” Refn says. “The question is: Is she a victim, or is she an essential initiator of the craving?”
Refn has a cult following for his Danish “Pusher” trilogy (1996-2005), but is best known for his acclaimed hit “Drive” (2011), as well as the polarizing “Only God Forgives,” both starring Ryan Gosling.
Former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez was hired to compose music for Refn’s three most recent films.
“The music has been the DNA of the films,” says Refn. “I deliberately make the films longer so there’s more time for music.”
Refn says he worked for a long time on the screenplay, starting only with an opening image — Jesse being photographed while covered in blood — and an ending.
He then hired English playwright Polly Stenham, followed by American playwright Mary Laws, to turn it into a story.
However, it wasn’t quite ready. “I was still very much rooted in the past, and I was interested in the future. Then, when Elle agreed to do the film, it was like, we’re going to start over again. There is no script anymore. I wanted to see the world through her eyes.”
It put an enormous amount of pressure on Fanning, a risk Refn says worked out perfectly. “The movie could only work because of her. It was everything.”
IF YOU GO
The Neon Demon
Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee
Written by Mary Laws, Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Running time 1 hour 57 minutes