The Neon Demon – Nicolas Winding Refn

Wonderland talks narcissism and evolution in a surreal interview with Nicolas Winding Refn regarding his latest movie.

Read Part 1 of our The Neon Demon special (with Elle Fanning) here.

Nicolas Winding Refn is not your average interviewee. He does things a little differently (very differently, indeed, to his latest muse of sorts, Elle Fanning). This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen not just universal youth favourite and Ryan Gosling pin-up fest Drive, but also its follow up: Only God Forgives.

If in his previous couple of movies the visual was important – Scorpion jacket ‘n’ all – then in new release, The Neon Demon, things shift even more to that particular aestheticized plain. That gloriously Lynchian realm of filmmaking where the potency of what you see (in all its powerful unreality) takes precedence over those things conventionally expected of mainstream film: conventional characterisation, a teleological plot, and so forth.

This savage horror flick focused on the nightmarish LA fashion world sees NWR leap down a synthetically lit rabbit hole of his own making: further into a spectacular world of pure surface and heightened visual play. Hearing Winding Refn could be a tricky interviewee, I decide this might be a good place to open, beginning to ask whether he agrees with my reading of his progression over his last three movies. I begin, but his stare – not confrontational but faintly bemused – throws me off. In the end, the only reply I get to my suggestion is, “what’s wrong with my characterisation?” And then, a little later, “I do what interests me.”

Then there’s his deliberately enigmatic claim that all men have “a sixteen year old girl inside of them.” When pressed on what exactly he means by this, his response is pseudo-mystical: “Look in to yourself.” This is the first of many invites over a long twenty minutes for me to do some self-analysis.

Panic is beginning to stir when some prosaic but usually reliable questions (about casting Fanning, about the genesis of the movie) get one sentence replies, so I decide I’ll pick up on another claim he’s made many times on the campaign trail for this movie. Namely, that The Neon Demon is not a critique of fashion and society’s obsession with youth and beauty, but simply a plain observation of it. Never one to assume that what a director says of his own work explains it in any comprehensive way, I nonetheless find it strange that Winding Refn should claim this of the movie, given that it’s at great pains to show the murderous and sexually deviant responses Jesse’s (Elle Fanning) narcissistic breed of milky beauty attracts.

Unsurprisingly, NWR disagrees. “By no means. Would I critique something everyone is fascinated by?” But what about the chilling vapidity of the world he creates: its terrifying artificiality and its theatrical blood-letting? He replies flatly, “the subject matter pushes the audience into a potentially uncomfortable situation because beauty is actually a very uncomfortable subject to deal with. It’s written off as being very superficial but that says something about you.”

At first, I assume that “you” refers to the audience – the we – but I quickly realise the interview’s balance is shifting: it’s becoming about me. “Why do you want it to be critical?” NWR asks. I reason that the movie’s thrillingly anti-realist stance implies some perspective, some point of view on what it depicts that’s inherently far from neutral.

“So you don’t have to have an opinion. So it explains it for you?”

It wasn’t what I was getting at, but now I’m unsettled, on the back foot, and words start to fail me. Mercilessly, he’s quick to tell me this. “You can’t even formulate a sentence because you’re already feeling uncomfortable because there’s something inside of you that you would like to say but you don’t know how to say it.”

NWR goes on to speak at length about the acute narcissism of our age as a kind of evolution; another important and inevitable step towards the realisation of the individual. “Why is it taboo to be self-obsessed?” he asks. “What it really means is that your parents and your grandparents (who would have been in the war) have basically been living for 60 years in a democratic process. Trying to stabilise everything so nothing can happen again that took the world by such storm. But the human mind has just evolved. One of the last taboos of the human psyche is this constant love of thou self. Does that devalue other people around you because you love yourself? Maybe we need to accept that part of ourselves in order to evolve and really accept everyone else around us… I think the world will only become better.”

It’s a strange, utterly unexpected kind of optimism from a director whose output frequently shines his characteristic neon lighting on some of humanity’ most violent and depraved impulses. Surely, I ask, self-love and self-knowledge are different things?

Not so for NWR: “I think to love one’s self you have to know one’s self: to accept one’s self,” he muses.

I’m stunned. Chasms of silence open up between us before, inevitably, Wonderland’s role as fashion magazine comes up. I attempt to make a distinction between the kind of Selfie Culture that the film implicitly skewers and fashion as something elevated, as an art form. NWR will not relent, “right now you’re walking in this grey morality zone where you’re trying to excuse the industry you’re in and explain it in a very technical way. But essentially, you’re just like The Neon Demon. If it wasn’t beautiful, you wouldn’t even look.”

“And your industry is all about looking.”

And that’s it. Time up and on to the next for Mr Nicolas Winding Refn: long may he provoke.

THE NEON DEMON is released in UK cinemas July 8th.

Benji Walters
The Neon Demon - Nicolas Winding Refn

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