Squirming your way through his latest film, you start to wonder: Is Nicolas Winding Refn messing with us for his own perverse pleasure? Worshipped by some and mocked by others for making gleefully violent, macho, stylized and self-referential movies that have lent both gravitas and street cred to Tom Hardy (Bronson) and Ryan Gosling (Drive, Only God Forgives), the Copenhagen-born provocateur is about to make heads explode with his new one—a harrowing about-face called The Neon Demon.
The film, in which a young beauty hits Hollywood and gets devoured by fame (in more ways than one), is the most violent Refn outing yet, and the most personal. Strange, considering the female-forward cast. “I believe every man has a 16-year-old girl inside him, and I wanted to make a movie about her,” Refn explains. “In this movie, I step out in the physical body of a 16-year-old girl, played by Elle Fanning, as I’d done before in the male bodies of Tom Hardy and Ryan Gosling. For me, it’s a whole new canvas of possibilities.”
Unhinged, gut-wrenching, perched on a knife-edge of elevated horror and high camp, The Neon Demon stars the gorgeous Fanning as an aspiring model overpowered by the envious bloodlust she unleashes in youth- and beauty-obsessed dolls played by Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee. “I’m very much dominated by women,” says Refn, who instructed Fanning to prepare for the role by watching Valley of the Dolls and reading filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s notoriously sordid Hollywood Babylon books. “Having only ever had one girlfriend, I only know one woman. You could say I came straight out of my mother and into my wife. Having a very beautiful wife and two daughters, I had become very interested in the insanity of beauty—insanity because as the power of beauty in society continues to rise, the longevity of how we define beauty continues to shrink. What happens when the obsession with, power of and need for beauty keep growing as our perception of the length of beauty recedes?” Cannibalism, necrophilia, predatory lust, obsessive-compulsive cosmetic surgeries and disembowelment, that’s what—in the deranged art-house-meets-grind-house world of The Neon Demon.
So why the detour, especially in the wake of rumors that Gosling was gearing up for a big-budget Refn-directed Logan’s Run remake? Turns out it was that inner 16-year-old girl screaming to be freed. “The kind of fetishizing of masculinity and the male body that I did in Bronson, Valhalla Rising and Drive had peaked beyond homoeroticism,” Refn says. “I’ve wanted to make a horror movie with a female cast for years. After Drive, I wanted to decompose everything, like when Lou Reed made one of the greatest rock albums, Transformer, and then had to make the distortion of Metal Machine Music. That’s what was next in his creative evolution. This is what’s next in mine.”