“Intense” only begins to describe the style of The Neon Demon (out Friday), the latest from director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive). What starts as the story of 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning), who moves to Los Angeles. for modeling, devolves into a high-fashion horror show. The palette is vivid and beyond vibrant. “I’m color-blind, so every film I make has to have a contrast of colors or else I can’t see them,” says Refn, who wrote the film with Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. “I grew up in the early ’80s when neon became a design concept. A lot of musicians would use it for their images. Films were using it….I’ve loved neon since I was very little.”
Refn believes when artists have a limitation like his color blindness, which he calls a “dyslexia,” it can force them to think outside the conventions of whatever medium they’re working in. “By giving yourself creative limitations, you’re able to exercise parts of your brain you otherwise would not touch upon because you don’t need to,” he says. “So when I make films — whether it’s Bronson, Drive, Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon — it’s almost setting up, not obstacles, but asking myself, ‘What haven’t I done, and how could I do it?'”
In this case, Refn decided to make his first horror film. The genre was a natural fit for the director and his signature flair for gore, an element of storytelling he has never shied away from. “[Violence] is an outlet because most sane people don’t [display] violent behavior,” Refn says. “But we fantasize about it, and art is an act of violence, of penetration.” And in the case of The Neon Demon, a disturbingly beautiful one.
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Beyond the dramatic aesthetic, the film is female centric. Jena Malone, Christina Hendricks, Abbey Lee, and Bella Heathcote appear alongside Fanning, with Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, and Karl Glusman rounding out the cast. “I make very feminine movies,” Refn says, adding that he’s surrounded by women through his wife and daughters. “There’s something very interesting about making a movie about a world that I am forced into.” Other points of interest for him: the idea of beauty as currency, and how beauty shrinks over time.
Not to mention, different perspectives on gender. “There’s a very odd eroticism in that men suddenly become women because they identify with a woman who’s usually the victim, so there’s a transgender from a male physicality to a female mentality,” he answers, when asked why women and horror, a genre he describes as being mostly about female sexuality, work well together. “I think that is very arousing for a lot of men.”
Like Drive, The Neon Demon is set in Los Angeles. “Every cultural flow, every media flow, even though it’s spread out around the world, all lead back to Los Angeles,” Refn says of what’s interesting to him about the film’s setting. Fanning thinks Los Angeles itself could be The Neon Demon. “It changes people, especially if you’re coming from a place where you know all the neighbors, you know everyone,” she says, then turning to her mysterious character. “[Jesse] signifies everything innocent, at least at first she’s the angel, the long hair, fair skin, and all that stuff.” As the film goes on, she transforms — and characters transform because of her.
A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1420.