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Neon Demon: Nicolas Winding Refn talks beauty and death of film's ending

‘I felt, in a way, what the whole movie was about would be the last scene,’ Nicolas Winding Refn says

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Gunther Campine

Spoilers, and brutal details, from The Neon Demon lie ahead. You’ve been warned…

The Neon Demon marks director Nicolas Winding Refn’s entry into horror, and its final moments are especially, well, horrific. The film, which has a script by Refn, Mary Laws, and Polly Stenham, tracks 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model who becomes the envy of a group of beauty-obsessed women, namely fellow models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) and makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone).

That envy seriously escalates when the trio attack and kill Jesse, bathe in her blood, and consume her, essentially to take her magnetism for their own. In an especially gruesome scene, Gigi is an emotional wreck because of what they’ve done so she vomits, her bile containing one of Jesse’s eyeballs, and cuts her stomach open. Gigi dies as a result, but a cool and collected Sarah pays no mind; instead, she picks up the eyeball and swallows it. 

Refn came to this brutal ending by thinking back on the beginning. “Every time I was at a creative crossroad,” he explains, “I would go back to the opening image and say, ‘Why is it that this came to me so specifically?’” The image to which he’s referring is of Jesse laying down in a blue dress with blood all over her; she’s totally lifeless, but it’s soon revealed that it’s for a photoshoot. “There’s something very similar, in a strange way, between beauty and death because the obsession of it, the longevity of it, and the youth of it can only mean that it will die, so what is one willing to do?”

That ending proved incredibly telling about the broader film. “I felt, in a way, what the whole movie was about would be the last scene — that’s where it kind of reveals itself, so everything goes back to the beginning, but it’s not revealed until the last few minutes,” continues Refn, whose other credits include Drive and Only God Forgives. “In terms of structure, that’s always interesting to play around with, because in the film you don’t ask what it is, you ask what it’s not, and then it reveals itself at the end.”

As far as what he wanted to get out of the visuals in those final moments, especially in relation to the aforementioned opening shot, “It became all about fetish, and fetish is our inner desire and imagination, larger than life, and yet there is something familiar about it,” Refn says. “What is important whenever one creates is that as long as it comes from the heart, it will always feel right. Sometimes I don’t always understand why this is the right thing to do other than it feels right.” 

He expands, “Halfway through the film I was like, this is the direction I want to go, and when we had five or six days left to shoot, I was like, no this is how it needs to be, and then it became that, so that’s more an instinctual thing that I follow. I don’t so much think about it mathematically, like, what’s the bigger payoff; rather, everything revolves around one or two similar obsessions, which is what the opening shot is about — death and beauty.” 

The Neon Demon also stars Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Desmond Harrington, and Karl Glusman, and is currently playing in theaters.