In the first of a two part series, Wonderland chats movie-blood and our futile pursuit of perfection with Elle Fanning, star of The Neon Demon.
Elle Fanning’s character Jesse is the polished but hollow china doll at the heart of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest slice of controversy: The Neon Demon. The narrative (in all its loose insignificance) focuses on her, but more importantly so does every other character. From the amateur photographer who takes small town girl Jesse’s first modelling shots, to the fashion designer fascinated by her beauty and the fellow models whose jealousy soon turns manic, everyone and every-thing here swirls around Fanning’s apparently perfect face. She’s perceived at all angles through a consumptive gaze of envy and of desire; through both the internal lenses of the movies, and ultimately, of course, through Winding Refn’s own hyper-stylized camera.
When I ask Fanning what it was like to be at the centre of this surreal, neon drenched picture – and whether it did strange things to her ego to be called beautiful day in, day out – she laughs, “that’s funny. When I first met with Nick at his house, the first thing he asked me was, “do you think you’re beautiful?” People don’t ask that. It’s something that’s very taboo and not spoken of. It’s so embarrassing, like uncomfortable, you know?” Ego question nimbly avoided with exquisite press training (what more could you expect from an 18 year old who’s got well over 30 film roles under her belt?), she goes on to explain that it’s this discomfort with confronting our self-perceptions that makes TND so difficulty to watch: “It’s so haunting because it makes people think about that, and the vanity inside of them.”
Sure. That, and the body-horror that has become one of Winding Refn’s many distinctive visual signatures (Drive’s head-mashing elevator scene seems positively tame during some of the perfectly choreographed blood shed that unfolds here). Still, as chilling as a rolling eyeball or a touch of necrophilia is, there tends to be a sense of blacker-than-black comedy about much of the horror here: the whole movie is too absurdist to play for simple shocks and is really “about”, as it were, our obsession with beauty. Not just LA or fashion’s fixation, but rather society’s wider obsession with the indisputable pleasure of beautiful surface.
Given that Fanning’s spent so much of her life in Hollywood’s spotlight, a young woman scrutinized as all young actresses are by the culture that permits the Sidebar of Shame to thrive, I’m curious to see her take on the cult of beauty in the digital age. “From a young age you become aware of the way that you look…. I grew 7 inches in a year once, I was so awkward…[and] being very aware of that, but in an industry where you see photographs of yourself a lot and when you watch a film you see yourself, it is difficult,” she confesses. Then, in a statement which seems to encompass both the world of the movie and her own A-List existence, notes, “there is pressure on you when it’s set in this world – it can intensify pressure.”
Even if the film’s about something much bigger than the LA and the Hollywood that Fanning calls home though, the city stands synecdochically in the movie for, and as the apex of, a whole system of seedy obsession and hollow façades: the dimly lit motels, the empty pools and the sterile luxury a la Bret Easton Ellis. Unsurprisingly, it’s not a picture of the city Fanning has much real-life experience of. “I live in LA, I love LA, it’s my home, where all my friends are and I go to school there,” she says, before continuing, “but then there’s a side to LA that’s very electrifying and enticing that you hear about, the neon-ness of it.” Neon-ness might as well be a shorthand for Winding Refn-esque, and the director readily embraces his own reputation here for manicured neon lighting, drawing us into a film that is itself immensely beautiful even when it’s grotesquely unwatchable.
Fanning adds to my sense of the film’s perverse delight in the macabre by, somehow both disturbingly and endearingly, exclaiming: “The blood in our film is so glamorous, it’s kind of beautiful! It also tastes really good.” Then, more philosophically reasoning, “the horror aspect of it is beautiful, because death and beauty go together. Because people can really make death a fantasy – no one really knows what happens.” That fantasy of beauty, in death (which isn’t spoiling much), in life, in the mind, is precisely what The Neon Demon explores: the fantasy we play out every day through filtered social media posts and Photoshopped editorials.
It’s that element of the movie that most seemed to strike a nerve with Fanning: “You look at your Instagram, and these photos are fake images of people…there are apps where people make themselves look skinnier. They’re like, “that’s beautiful.” But that’s not real! It’s like getting obsessed with being the perfect being and perfection doesn’t exist, but perfection is weirdly starting to exist because of our phones.” And perhaps it’s the film’s heightened and unflinching reflections on our obsessions, more than the gore and its supposed vapidity, which have polarized opinion on The Neon Demon so severely. Nonetheless, Fanning shows she knows the power of polemic when she concludes, “this one stays in your mind even if you love it or even if you hate it.” No arguments here.