Provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn is back with “The Neon Demon”

The divisive, Danish-born auteur's latest provocation is set in the glamorous, dangerous world of high fashion models.

“Great cinema is really all about what you don’t see.”

Director Nicolas Winding Refn told me this last year when I interviewed him for the release of The Act Of Seeing, a collection of more than 300 posters, curated by Refn, of exploitation rarities, mostly from the ’60s and ’70s, all featured in a heavy, gorgeously-rendered hardcover tome. Or as he gleefully admits, “a very expensive book, but about trash.”

His love of artsy trash cinema and subliminal imagery continues with “The Neon Demon,” a new film that could fit right alongside the aged, forgotten titles from his book. Elle Fanning stars as an aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles, where her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has. The film, though it was initially touted as his first real foray into horror, is, of course, anything but a traditional entry in the genre. “Don’t believe everything you read. Traditional… come on man. My films are like Christmas, you can’t wait to open it,” he elaborated. “And one thing’s for sure, what you expect I’m not going to give you. That’s what makes life so much more fun.”

Director Nicolas Winding Refn on the set of "The Neon Demon."

Director Nicolas Winding Refn on the set of “The Neon Demon.”

When “The Neon Demon” premiered at Cannes this past May, it was met with the now-obligatory mix of boos and elation from audiences and critics. But Refn has embraced being a divisive filmmaker, citing his work as being punk rock. He’s been quoted that good and bad mean nothing anymore in cinema. It’s all about the experience, he says, and making an impact on the viewer’s psyche. If you’ve followed his career up to now, and even liked his last film “Only God Forgives” (a great film tarred by critical lashings and audience indifference), then you should know what to expect with his latest.

Then again, despite being another strong auteurist statement of intent, “The Neon Demon” does come with its share of surprises. Until now, his films have focused on troubled, lonely and violent men. Here we get a mostly female cast and a deeply critical, sometimes satirical storyline about the currency of beauty that saves its more overt horror elements for its final 30 minutes. It’s a film rife with contradictions: stunningly gorgeous to look at and listen to, it’s also an ugly film that embraces bad taste while also examining beauty. It could be the love child of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, collaborating on a giallo version of “Beyond The Valley of the Dolls.”

I think Refn is one of the most gifted and exciting filmmakers working today. But I must cop to a certain confused ambivalence after seeing “The Neon Demon.” It left me cold by the end, unable to escape the feeling that it’s far too long. But when the film spins out into a goofy, absurdly bloody and nearly-out-of-nowhere climax, it also feels like it was missing elements that could have tied it altogether. It may be one of Refn’s least satisfying movies, at least in the moment, but it has so much great stuff in it that it can’t be denied. It’s either the dumbest, most obvious movie about modeling ever made, or it’s the sneakiest, most subversive take on the industry we’ve yet seen. Or it’s all these things and none of them. It’s hard to tell, and that, believe or it or not, is high praise in my opinion. I’ve never been so mixed on a film that I still heartily recommend you go out and see.

Elle Fanning in a scene from Nicolas Winding Refn's "The Neon Demon."

Elle Fanning in a scene from Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon.”

Refn has long been mesmerized by the cinema of sleaze. Like Henry Hill in “Goodfellas,” who wanted to be a gangster far back as he could remember, Refn has always wanted to make films. Or at least since seeing Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” when he had a sudden realization: film is an art form. It’s not surprising he found his creative outlet in cinema. He grew up in Denmark, the son of a successful photographer and a veteran director and editor in the Danish film industry (his father Anders cut Lars Von Trier‘s “Breaking the Waves” and “Antichrist”). But in 1981 he moved to New York City where he learned English and rebelled against the artsy taste of his parents by turning to genre movies.

He briefly studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, until he was expelled for throwing a table into a wall, and passed on attending the Danish Film Institute after he was able to develop his application short film into a full-length feature. This became his debut, “Pusher,” released in 1996 to a steadily growing wave of cult appreciation. This film, along with Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 “La Haine,” was incredibly influential to modern crime cinema, blending gritty style, social realism and an anti-romanticism, elements crucial to such subsequent movies as “City of God,” “Gomorrah,” “A Prophet” and “Animal Kingdom.”

Refn’s career hit some speed bumps after his sophomore effort “Bleeder” in 1999 and its follow-up four years later, “Fear X,” his first film shot in English. The poor box office performance of “Fear X” bankrupted Refn and his production company. This turn of events led the colorblind filmmaker (he can’t see mid-range colors, hence the high level of contrast in all his works) to scrap his next planned film, “Billy’s People,” (which has never been made) and head back to the world of “Pusher,” in the form of two sequels written and directed in the span of two years.

This paid off, as portrayed in the excellent 2006 documentary “Gambler” (available as a special feature on the “Pusher” Trilogy DVD set). The “Pusher” sequels are every bit as good, if not better, than their predecessor, expanding the world established in the first film and offering a deeper glimpse into the lives of characters who began as supporting players. They are the rare example of sequels made almost entirely for the money, but still delivering genuine pathos in the bargain.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn on the set of "Pusher 2."

Director Nicolas Winding Refn on the set of “Pusher 2.”

With his debts paid off, Refn moved on to the next, current, stage in his career. The valleys of “Fear X” and the recaptured peaks of the “Pusher” sequels, coupled with the birth of his first child, made profound impact. When the violent prison drama “Bronson” came along, Refn set out to make a movie about his own life. He spoke about his vision for the 2008 film in an interview on The Treatment: “…that kind of nihilism [in the Bronson character] was very much me when I was younger. The films I made were very destructive, I was very self destructive, art had to be self-destructive. People who saw my films had to be destroyed by them. I was very infantile and arrogant.”

Then it was on to “Valhalla Rising,” something Refn sees as “[the] first new canvas of my image, after my transformation.” This bizarre, druggy Viking mini-epic is closest in style and sensibility to “Only God Forgives.” Then “Drive” came along, a gorgeous, neon-lit homage to Michael Mann 80s nostalgia with a fascinating deconstructionist bent.

Refn’s a true talent, a much-touted collaborative filmmaker with auteur sensibilities who considers and respects the audience with every film, but manages to retain artistic integrity. His films are violent, honest, ambitious and entertaining, and “The Neon Demon” is no different. That’s why I can’t wait to see it again, despite my initially underwhelming first viewing.

After all, like he told me last year: “The whole idea of a perfect film is just ridiculous because it doesn’t exist. I mean, the perfect girlfriend would be really fucking boring [laughs]. I think that imperfection is what makes it interesting because it’s about personality. Making it personal and imperfect, not trying to make it perfect or not trying to make it like everything else. Not playing by the rules. That’s what keeps it alive. It’s why kids still wear Ramones t-shirts. They weren’t the greatest musicians but they had something within them that was about so much more about just playing an instrument. There was a meaning.”

You can find the meaning for yourself in “The Neon Demon” when it opens this Friday at Cinema 21.

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