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Cannes 2016: director Nicolas Winding Refn on The Neon Demon's already notorious necrophilia scene

The Neon Demon director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Elle Fanning at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
The Neon Demon director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Elle Fanning at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
Luca Teuchmann/Getty Images

CANNES, France — Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly anticipated new film The Neon Demon received quite a reception at its first Cannes Film Festival screening on Thursday. As Sia’s gorgeous closing track "Waving Goodbye" filled the theater, the global press corps reacted with a mix of sustained loud applause and significant boos.

This is nothing new for a Refn film. After Drive ruled Cannes in 2011, his 2013 follow-up, Only God Forgives, was almost eviscerated by the festival critics before finding some notable champions prior to its theatrical release. Based on Refn’s response at The Neon Demon's official press conference, this is exactly the sort of response he’d hope for.

"Art is not about good or bad, guys. Those days are over. The internet has changed [everything], so film as an art form is about an experience," Refn said. "Good or bad is Chinese food or the pepper steak you had at the French bistro last night."

He continued, "Creativity is about reactions, and reaction is the essence of an experience. An essence of an experience is planting thought. If you don't react, what are you doing here? There are so many other things in life that are worth doing than just watching a movie or TV show just to consume time. That's dumb. Go do something else. Living is creativity."

The Neon Demon, which is currently scheduled for a June release, stars Elle Fanning as Jesse, a mysterious 16-year-old hoping to make it in Los Angeles as a high-end model. As she looks for any way in, she soon meets Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), two established models who initially don’t see her appeal. It appears the only person who might actually be looking out for her is the overly supportive Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist and — no joke — mortician (more on that later).

Quickly signed by a major agent (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Christina Hendricks), Jesse immediately becomes a favorite of major photographers and fashion designers and is branded a rising star. This doesn’t sit well with Gigi and Sarah, who are fearful of losing relevance at the mere age of 21. As the film progresses, Jesse becomes more confident while also increasingly naive to the potential horrors that await her at every turn.

One of The Neon Demon's main themes concerns society's obsession with beauty

The almost eternally smiling Fanning, who missed her senior prom to attend The Neon Demon's world premiere, said at the film's press conference that she was a huge fan of Drive and was intrigued by playing what is arguably the darkest role of her career so far.

"In the beginning we talked about her like she's Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz because she's plopped in this world and you don't really know where she comes from, but she's innocent and sort of looking at these sparkly things," Fanning said. "For awhile I thought LA was the Neon Demon because the city is so haunting and so enticing. It sucks you in, but it spits you out."

It’s worth noting the fact that this story takes place in LA instead of fashion meccas New York or Paris is an early hint that Refn is less concerned with realism than an impressionistic "heightened reality." In the director’s words, The Neon Demon is "terror and beauty," "sex and violence," and "its instinct as a film is to penetrate your mind and let it absorb whatever it is, and it becomes part of you."

Refn added, "I think there is something very terrifying in even thinking the world can only be about beauty. The reality is if you look around it's an obsession that has only grown. Even though we try to rationalize it, we try to politicize it, we try to do this and that ... the digital revolution has sped up a part of man's evolution that is to the extreme."

The filmmaker said that when he first spoke to Fanning about starring in the teenage horror story he said, "Let’s make a movie about the obsession of beauty." Those are some lofty aspirations, but Refn’s opinion on how the digital age has affected society’s aesthetic perspective is hard to argue with.

"It's in our television, it's in our social media, it’s what you guys write about," Refn says. "But what’s going to happen when the longevity no longer exists? Meaning how we define beauty's length shrinks and shrinks and shrinks. It all seems to become younger and younger and younger. And that to me is terrifying. I have two daughters, and that is what I found that between [Elle and me], a 45-year-old man and a 16-year-old girl, to be a very universal [fear]."

Why Refn believes The Neon Demon's necrophilia scene is the essence of the film

As you’d expect from a visionary filmmaker of Refn’s caliber, The Neon Demon is filled with stunning imagery, but it’s the unexpectedly gruesome scenes that will truly shock audiences. One of those moments involves Ruby, who is not exactly what she seems. It’s hard to describe out of context, but at one point Ruby crosses a boundary at her less glamorous mortician gig. Refn said he views this "necrophilia scene" as the essence of the film, and can’t heap enough praise upon Malone’s performance in it.

Most of The Neon Demon was shot in chronological order, as Refn tinkered with characters and scenes during production. But because he wanted to shoot at a real morgue, the necrophilia scene had to be shot before the rest of the picture. This made Refn uncomfortable because he wasn’t sure just who Ruby really was yet in the context of the story. Of course, Refn and Malone also had no idea that the scene would find Ruby having some sort of intercourse with a dead body (played by an impressively still living actress).

Refn recalls nervously giving direction, noting, "I sort of have to talk her through. 'Okay, can you spit in her mouth? Spit. Can you stick your tongue in her mouth? Can you let your hand slide down between her legs? Okay, that's good, can I get more saliva when you spit on her? Now on the nipples, let's kiss on the nipples a lot.' It kind of escalated into this, really, necrophilia scene that was shot three or four times with all these other women in the room. And after that, I was like, "We found her. We found the character. Now go with God.'"

And, again, that’s just one particular scene that The Neon Demon is already notorious for just hours after its debut. It all fits into Refn’s "punk rock" desire to rock the boat.

"It's like, y'know, whatever you got, I'll tear it down and I'll give you something else instead," Refn said. "That is an important thing because I want my children to have the same attitude, integrity, take no prisoners, whatever you want to call it. Don't compromise on life or anything, because that's where you feel life."