“It’s as close as I get to painting,” Nicolas Winding Refn tells FilmInk at The Cannes Film Festival. “I can’t paint…I’m colour blind.” It’s a surprise revelation from the Danish director, whose latest film, The Neon Demon, is awash with colour and vibrancy. “I can’t see mid colours,” Refn continues. “I can only see contrast colours, so everything has to be contrasted. But I can’t explain that, so they have to show it to me until I can find what I like. I say, ‘That I like…that’s what we are going to go with.’ And then they may say, ‘But hang on, that’s combining this and this and this…you should do this instead.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t care, because I can’t see that, but I can see that.’ It automatically forces you to look at the world in a different way.”
Nicolas Winding Refn has built his career on looking at the world in a different way. From the Danish director’s homeland drug trilogy, Pusher, through to his international cult ascendancy on the back of Bronson, Drive, and the polarising Only God Forgives, Refn’s films have been defined by a truly singular vision, and a bizarrely jaundiced world view tinted occasionally with optimism. As well as being colour blind, Refn has also stated that he is dyslexic, and that he learned to navigate and appreciated the world solely through images, most of which he found on American television.
“I came to New York in 1978 when I was 8-years-old and I didn’t speak a word of English,” Refn says. “I came from Denmark, which was probably like living in Eastern Europe at that time. We had one TV channel, and then I came to America, and there were multiple channels of images that I could control with a remote control. It was heaven. I watched anything that I could get my hands on. But I had very strict television rules because I had a very Danish upbringing in New York which meant that television was evil. But I found ways to become friends with the television, so I could see everything without my mother knowing. I’d turn on the TV when she wasn’t in the room, and then turn it off before she came back in. I watched a lot of things without sound.”
Birthing his cock-eyed world view, Refn’s visual awakening is threaded all through The Neon Demon, a mind-zapping eyeball assault that probes the American (and indeed global) fascination with youth and beauty. An exercise in high cinematic style, the film draws on the Italian giallo tradition to tell the story of Jesse (Elle Fanning), an up and coming model who falls into the orbit of Alessandro Nivola’s saturnine fashionista, in the process discovering that the glamour of the fashion industry conceals a world of bloodshed and horror. Filled with no-holds-barred imagery that sees beauty rubbing up against horror at every turn, it’s another cinematic hand grenade from Refn, and a brave showcase for young actress, Elle Fanning (Maleficent, Super 8, Trumbo). “There were really no other choices than Elle Fanning,” Refn says. “I was very lucky that she agreed to do the movie. But I was also like, ‘I want to make a movie about a sixteen-year-old girl, and you’re sixteen and that’s great. I am going to channel, through you, so we need to mutate into one and go on this journey together. I shoot in chronological order, so let’s see what happens.’”
While Fanning anchors the films, there’s a strong supporting cast in Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Christina Hendricks, and Keanu Reeves, who plays a sleazy, intimidating landlord. “I was very lucky that Keanu agreed to come in on this one,” says Refn. “I didn’t have any money, so I was just like, ‘Here’s what I can pay you. It’s four or five days, but it’s spread out because I shoot chronological order.’ But I promised to shoot in LA, and he was like, ‘Sure.’ Oh, Keanu is amazing. Talk about a movie star, and a great actor.” Playing directly against his usually heroic on-screen image, Reeves is particularly unsettling in a scene where he menaces Jesse with a knife. “A big part of the movie is very much about the loss of virginity via penetration, and the control of the penetration. Jesse is a virgin, and what a virgin fears is forced penetration and violation. And of course, the power of a knife in someone’s mouth is a very fetishised image.”
It’s a shocking visual tableaux, but it clicks perfectly with Refn’s themes of the loss of purity in a world defined by avarice and desperation. “They’re all feeding on something, because there is this endless thirst for ‘perfection’, or everything that it represents,” the director asserts. “And, very quickly, it starts to lose the effect as a physical thing, and it becomes internal. It becomes about purity or virginity, and it becomes philosophical…it becomes everything. It starts superficially on the outside and then it starts to go into the inside…all the way until the heart.”
It’s this kind of thematic daring that saw The Neon Demon strike a major flame at The Cannes Film Festival, where the film literally cleaved audiences and critics in two. Characteristically, that put a big smile on the mischievous Refn’s face. “I like culture,” the director says. “In every sense and every word. I like singularity, more than anything else. Good and bad…that is your pasta. I had a good dinner or I had a bad dinner. Art is an experience, and I find that interesting. I was at the screening of The Neon Demon, and hearing the violence of love and hate erupting from the screening was wonderful. I was like, ‘The Sex Pistols have arrived again!’ I am the reason why your Cannes is so interesting, and the pleasure is all mine.”