By Lindsey Bahr
AP Film Writer
LOS ANGELES — Nicolas Winding Refn is pressed for time.
He has two premieres to get to for his film “The Neon Demon,” a stylish and perverse thriller about an aspiring teenage model (Elle Fanning), which struts into U.S. theaters Friday. One is a public event on the sprawling lawn of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, now one of the town’s hippest screening spaces. The other is a late night extravaganza in Hollywood’s gloriously retro Cinerama Dome theater followed by a model-filled after party.
Simply, it’s a big night.
“The 16-year-old girl in me wants to go home and dress up,” Refn says with a Cheshire grin. He plans to wear Prada.
Refn likes to elicit reactions, but he claims he doesn’t have an agenda to provoke — he considers that to be childish. This twisty logic won’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with the Danish director’s sleekly violent films, which needle audiences as much as they captivate them. He seems almost glad that some booed when “The Neon Demon” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last month. It’s a reaction, after all.
“The more divisive, the better,” he said.
The way he talks about his work has a similar effect. He’s used the “16-year-old girl” line a number of times, for example, including to Fanning before he cast the then 16-year-old as his lead, Jesse. Refn is 45.
“She was cool with it, so I said let’s make this movie,” he said.
A film about a teenage girl is a 180 for Refn, who has luxuriated in the terrain of hyper masculinity for most of his career, like in “Drive,” ”Only God Forgives,” the “Pusher” series, “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising.” In his personal life, though, he’s surrounded by women — his wife, filmmaker and actress Liv Corfixen, and two daughters.
“The world of women is so much more interesting, because it’s just more complex. Guys are pretty dumb usually,” he said. “Women are, in a way, more science fiction-like. They are so much more about the future. Men to me very much represent the past.”
The future, for Refn, is narcissism, which he explores in “Neon Demon.”
As a slimy character says in the film, “beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
The sentiment didn’t just stay on the page either. When Fanning first met Refn, he asked her if she thought she was beautiful.
“That’s something that people just don’t ask. I don’t know if it’s being a woman, but you’re taught not to answer that. You’re not supposed to. You can’t,” said Fanning, now 18. “But it’s hypocritical. People say you should love yourself and say you’re beautiful, but then it’s crossing that line into narcissism.”
Fanning’s character Jesse, fresh off the bus from Georgia, exemplifies that idea. She knows she is beautiful. She even says it, and no one can touch her because of that — not even the ravenously jealous models (Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote) who try to cut her down.
“I kind of looked at her as this creature. She was definitely not a normal human being,” said Fanning of Jesse. “There’s this aura around her, but in reality, she’s the poison. It’s like if Dorothy from Oz was evil … I like her, but she’s dangerous, she’s scary. And then she just gets more and more powerful as she starts to fall deeper in love with herself.”
There’s also Keanu Reeves as a seedy motel manager, blood and glitter soaked fashion shoots, a sleazy photographer (Desmond Harrington) and an even sleazier designer (Alessandro Nivola), a suffer-no-fools makeup artist (Jena Malone), and even some necrophilia. But “The Neon Demon” is better experienced than explained.
Before Refn heads off to his Prada and premieres, though, he pauses to offer some advice: “Narcissism is a virtue. Tell yourself that every day.”
Is he agitating? Is he sincere? It’s probably some combination of the two. In the end, maybe it’s better not to know.