“I thought that I was the greatest filmmaker of all time, that I was God’s gift to mankind. And I’ve learned that I’m not the greatest filmmaker of all time. But I’ve accepted that the kinds of films I make, I’m the absolute best at.”1
The Neon Demon (2016) is Nicolas Winding Refn’s 11th film, and the second since his breakthrough commercial success with Drive (2011). He followed that film with the self-consciously challenging Only God Forgives (2013), the fraught production of which was captured by Liv Corfixen, Refn’s wife, in the documentary My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014). To his detractors, Refn has made his reputation as a stylist principally concerned with fetishing violence, a self-conscious aesthete whose work is as pretentious as it is insubstantial. To his supporters – and himself – he and his collaborators are “the Sex Pistols of cinema”2, taking pleasure in provoking negative reactions as much as positive ones. To either side, with its promotional campaign mimicking/parodying fashion shoots, utilising familiar iconography and branding, The Neon Demon is agreed to be “about” something.
It comes trailed as Refn’s first horror (“To do a horror film about beauty is probably to do the most complex horror film, because it’s…everything.”3), and with an unusually pronounced – for Refn – feminine aspect. It’s about the fashion industry, youth, female relationships, LA, the narcissism of a generation. Above all, though, it’s about Nicolas Winding Refn, a filmmaker who refutes the side effects of his native Danish ideals of social parity and universal equality – “janteloven” – essentially that you shouldn’t aim to stand out from the crowd. In a recent interview with the Guardian’s Danny Leigh, Refn confessed, “I’m just very, very self-absorbed, when it comes to work, and if I feel the need to do something, then I have to find a way to do it.” And while acknowledging this self-absorption, he confirms that all his films are, on some level, about him. “I don’t deny my egomania,” he counters, “I don’t hide it.”4
Refn has somehow evolved into a filmmaking brand as much as a respected filmmaker. He lends his name to coffee table books, curated series of vinyl soundtrack re-releases and entire film seasons. These are indulgences, perks and plaudits usually awarded to established auteurs with distinct ‘brand identities’ and, perhaps more importantly, proven commercial track records, e.g. Tarantino, Scorsese, del Toro. Refn’s name sells now, and it’s not a coincidence that his bespoke NWR logo resembles that of a fashion house. Like many of his peers, he pays the bills directing adverts – a recent one for Hennessy X.O cognac features a score by frequent Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez, presents seven ‘chapters’ in under two minutes and is generally a maximalist ode to self-indulgence.
Raised partially in New York, he’s always been at odds with his countrymen peers – reportedly making “unkind remarks…on roughly an hourly basis”5 about Festen director Thomas Vinterberg and accusing an “over the hill”6 Lars von Trier of trying to sleep with his wife (von Trier retorted, “I’ve known him since he was a kid! Fuck him.”7). And although Vinterberg and von Trier launched their Dogme 95 manifesto before Refn made his debut with Pusher (1996), some insist the latter was more influential than either have acknowledged. According to Pusher star Mads Mikkelsen, “We did the film without any rules, without any rules of lighting or money or costumes or sound. We did it because we had no money…and I think that rock ’n’ roll energy was an inspiration, and if they don’t want to admit it, that’s fine with me.”8 At any rate, it’s difficult to imagine Refn willingly signing up to any restrictions, let alone to Vinterberg’s infamous Kyskhedsløfter (Vow of Chastity).
Notably, then, The Neon Demon was inspired, in part, by Refn’s desire to counter the unrestrained masculinity of his oeuvre. He’s explained, “it’s a film that gives women control,”9 and that inspiration came one morning, “when I woke up and was like ‘You know what? I wasn’t born beautiful, but my wife is and I wonder what that would be like.'”10 In other contexts, he’s reframed that moment a little more insightfully, saying, “I woke and realised I was both surrounded and dominated by women. Strangely, a sudden urge was planted in me to make a horror film about vicious beauty.”11 The other primary inspiration for The Neon Demon came from Corfixen’s insistence his follow-up to the Thailand-shot Only God Forgives be made in California (the newer film is dedicated to her).
Refn surrounded himself with key female collaborators – debut screenwriters Polly Stenham and, later, Mary Laws, cinematographer Natasha Braier, producer Lene Børglum and a core cast consisting of several young women, led by Elle Fanning as Jesse. And yet, of course, it’s really all about Nicolas Winding Refn. The high-contrast colour palate, as is the norm in his films, is shaped by his partial colourblindness – he can’t discern midtones, so The Neon Demon obliges the viewer to literally see as he sees. Refn deliberately obscured Jesse’s past and minimized her dialogue, putting her in a lineage with Drive’s The Driver (Ryan Gosling) and Valhalla Rising’s One-Eye (Mikkelsen), so their stories are “less about their journey and more about everyone else’s interpretation of what they actually represent to them.”12 But Jesse is, at her core, “a 16-year-old-girl version of me, coming to LA, having been born beautiful.”13 The lens may refract, but of his focus, Refn remains clear. “I think that part of creativity is also falling in love with your own narcissism: accepting it, using it as an asset.”14
Sean Welsh, July 2016
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.
1. Nicolas Winding Refn, video interview with Danny Leigh
2. Nicolas Winding Refn, ‘The Neon Demon: Nicolas Winding Refn Reveals Why His Cannibal Model Movie Is Autobiographical’ by Anne Thompson for IndieWire
3. Nicolas Winding Refn, video interview with Danny Leigh, ibid.
5. Danny Leigh, ‘Nicolas Winding Refn: ‘I bring the singular, the narcissistic, the high art‘, The Guardian
6. Nicolas Winding Refn, as reported by Brent Lang for Variety
7. Lars von Trier, as reported by Howard Feinstein for Indiewire
8. Mads Mikkelsen, ‘Exclusive: Mads Mikkelsen and Nicolas Winding Refn chat to Euronews’
9. Nicolas Winding Refn, interviewed by Danny Leigh for The Guardian
10. Nicolas Winding Refn, ‘The Neon Demon Director Nicolas Winding Refn on Making a Horror Film for Women’ by Trace Thurman for BloodyDisgusting.com
11. Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon press release
12. Nicolas Winding Refn, Anatomy of a scene: The Neon Demon, Nytimes.com
13. Nicolas Winding Refn, Anne Thompson, ibid.
14. Nicolas Winding Refn, ‘The director of Drive has a new film he hopes challenges “goddamn old-school morality”’ by Alex McCown for The AV Club