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Narcissism Is Freedom: Nicolas Winding Refn On The Neon Demon
Philippa Snow , July 8th, 2016 08:45

With his new film The Neon Demon in cinemas today, Philippa Snow interviews Nicolas Winding Refn, director of Drive and Only God Forgives.

The following interview contains spoilers for The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest outing is a film about being a beautiful adolescent girl, which means that it’s also a film about driving a speeding car with no license, or keeping a gun in your clutch with the safety off. The sexual power of teenage girls is one of those rare gifts that leaves the recipient further imperiled, which Refn — the father of two daughters — knows all too well (“Nicolas is especially interested in hearing what women think of the film,” I’m told by the press team, to which I can only say: I’ll bet).

In Drive, another great North-American beauty, Ryan Gosling, treated Los Angeles like his bitch. In The Neon Demon, the city — along with three literal, beautiful bitches — treats Elle Fanning much the same way. A Guardian writer on-set reported that Refn yelled: “sell it, babies — sell the pain!” to his femmes during filming, which seems to me like a perfect marker of Neon Demon’s ethos; it is, as the web might say, “extra.” Being a midnight movie devotee as well as a lover of Giallo, I’m wild for wild, sick girls and murders in mansions, which Demon has in spades — blondes, as Hitchcock so famously said, “make the best victims,” and an ingénue shows up the bloodiest footprints far better than anyone.

“Neon is no longer anxious” Eleanor Courtemanche writes, in an essay about a far less gory exploitation of L.A. teen treachery, Sophia Coppola’s Bling Ring. “It’s shameless, it’s fearless, YOLO. It’s the death of alternative culture, in which youth adopts a pose of alienation from the market…kids are happy conformists. They’re criminals, and they know it, and they sort of get away with it.” The Neon Demon proves the truth at the fratty centre of YOLO by letting its dead teens stay dead — and sort of gets away with it. “Beauty is terror” has never meant more. Resembling a young Sissy Spacek, Elle Fanning cleans up, then gets messy; a naïve model-turned-sex-object, she excels as what Pauline Kael might call “a squashed, froggy girl who could go in any direction.” In other words: she sells the pain, baby.

So, I should probably say right up-front that I really liked the film.

Nicolas Winding Refn: Great. Why?

I thought it played with a lot of interesting binary opposites; and Elle Fanning surprised me, because I think she has this terrific Sissy-Spacek-in-Carrie quality of appearing very vulnerable, and as though she’s about to explode at the same time. And I was surprised by how funny it was.

NWR: There’s a lot of humour in it.

But the thing that I really wanted to ask you about was the sex. This could have been a very titillating film; but I felt as if you were deliberately trying to make all the sexual content in it feel misanthropic, or antihuman. The motel owner’s a rapist, Ruby’s a necrophiliac. Jessie only really gets off on herself.

NWR: Mm. Mm.

There’s nobody in it who actually has conventional, consensual sex with another person. It felt like you were playing a push-and-pull game with the audience, because visually the film is very seductive

NWR: Well, now that you’ve brought it up, that’s a very, very interesting analysis — and it makes complete sense to me now that you’re saying it. I didn’t initially even have that in my mind; so that’s what’s cool about [audience interpretation]. I think there’s something mundane about sexuality, because a), it’s something we all do — hopefully — and b), because everyone has their own take on it. So it’s hard to fantasise about it in a really interesting way, in my opinion. Because it doesn't only live in the world of fantasy, it’s an act that happens.

This is why by not showing sex, you’re actually much more sexy, because in not showing sex, you’re forcing the audience to have a very subliminal reaction to it, and everything becomes very specific [to them]. So, okay: the sexuality in Demon is, in a way, a very fetishised sexuality. There’s the necrophilia — so, what does that mean? That’s a fear of rejection. It’s a very melancholy sexuality, it’s a very sad sexuality. And you have the rapist, which is a very violent and vile form of sexuality; very vicious, mean-spirited. So those are very opposite ends. And then you have what is basically self-sex, which is the narcissist’s acceptance of themselves as their own partner. [Extremes] make sexuality difficult to pinpoint, in the sense that it makes everything more imaginative. It’s like a fairytale. And fairytales never sexualise things, they just have a sexual undertone.

There’s just something about sex by itself that I don’t find very interesting. But I think sexualised subjects are interesting. Does that make sense?

Yeah, it does.

NWR: Oh, God — good!

I have to say, so far I’ve really enjoyed your reaction to the press’ reactions. There was a great — well, I mean to say: “great” — thing on the Daily Mail website after the premiere….

NWR: Oh, I heard something about this….

Is This the Most Extreme Film Ever Screened in Britain? Which from the Mail is pretty much the best press you could hope for.

NWR: You can’t get any better than that.

Do you think that part of the reason this is getting a more extreme response than Drive is the fact that it’s women who are involved in the violence? There’s a lot of violence, obviously, which isn’t a criticism, as much as an observation.

NWR: I think that there is still a very heavily-stereotyped view about women and violence. It’s generally either very pornographic, where it’s sexualizing an act of a violent nature: either by degrading it, or by worshipping it, but in either case purely from a male perspective. And then there is the other version, which is a lot more complicated — that women can be vicious to women, and what’s so wrong with showing that? Because there’s nothing sexual in that viciousness. It’s by no means degrading. On the contrary, it’s common knowledge that young girls can be very, veryyyy…. (Laughs)

I remember that a lot of the laughs at the screening were reactions to the fact that the film does a good job of reproducing the way that women talk to each other when they want to be hurtful — not necessarily saying anything cruel per se, but just so devastating. It has a good ear for that.

NWR: And that was important, because it was part of the whole insanity of it — that it had that kind of ring to it. I think that this film is made for girls.

And you have two daughters.

NWR: One of whom just turned thirteen! And a seven-year-old, and a wife. So I’m surrounded by women, and I’m very obedient to them! All of the male characters are there as plot points, so it’s purely an exercise in female empowerment. What’s really weird to me is the way that this element of female sexuality is something that men have been trying to control for hundreds of years. And my thinking is, in a way: well, narcissism is the ultimate freedom. It’s fully accepting and loving oneself. In a way, it’s important to cherish all the benefits of that.

We live in a society where we’re constantly being bombarded by the negativity of the future, the negativity of the digital revolution, the negativity of youth being self-absorbed — like my parents weren’t? I mean, they were hippies! So I think, well, my daughter will grow up into this world of amazing opportunities. And maybe the final frontier is no longer treating narcissism as a taboo, but — on the contrary — celebrating it as a natural evolution of the human psyche.

It’s funny that you’d say that, as during the fashion designer’s monologue about Jesse in the café, where he says that — and I’m paraphrasing, I think — “beauty isn’t the only thing, because it’s everything,” I kept wondering whether it was really you who was speaking, to some degree.

NWR: I think “beauty is everything” is a heightened version of our potential future. I’m not critiquing, nor validating. I think you have to accept it in order to examine it. But surely our obsession with beauty is only going to increase. And longevity will only continue to shrink in our perception of beauty, and the ideal will continue to get younger. Those are facts. The question is, how do we deal with it? And that’s a very individual, human decision [to have to make].

The Neon Demon is out in UK cinemas from today