Is Nicolas Winding Refn’s NEON DEMON a singular condemnation of the fashion industry? No, it’s a thought-provoking condemnation of something even deeper, that thing that feeds the fashion industry. Our cultural norms have become twisted askew, and it’s beautifully pointed out in this film.
The fashion as porn argument becomes vivid in the film, as various allegorical props (the characters, the locations, as well as the script) are used to make the audience think about what exactly is really going on. Who pushes this industry, what are the dynamics,and at what cost to our young girls and women?
Utlmately the blame lies within all of us. From the circus of the catwalks, where pushing the envelope and the ridiculous is not only accepted but admired; the consumers who buy into it, the parents who don’t counsel their daughters wisely, the fetish of youth, and “beauty isn’t everything, it’s the ONLY thing.” credo of the industry. But who is dictating exactly what beauty is? It’s a perfect set-up for predators all the way around, and Refn has just brought the obvious to the surface with NEON DEMON.
If you’ve ever been to a thrift store and seen the discarded high end items from the fashion industry like shoes, purses, jewelry and clothes, think about the fact that someone bought this item (often at full price) in order to feel better about themselves, to look better and fit in. When it doesn’t magically transform the person, it’s discarded. But here’s the kicker, you will never look like the model who is being used to sell the item. Even if you are the same age, height and weight, and coloring – because carefully edited photos and lighting momentarily transform those models into something other than what they actually look like. Then of course photoshop is used to further alter the image.
The culturally accepted norm of female beauty has been discussed endlessly already as being unattainable – and constantly changing. There’s a good reason for that. If you write the fashion rules, dictating what everyone is supposed to be wearing and look like, you are financially ahead of the game, and laughing all the way to the bank. Naturally, this high dollar industry is insular, gaming the consumers for as long as they will take it. Fashion Czars have been pushing the envelope for a long time. What’s scary is the lengths they will go to to make you feel bad enough to buy into it. The models are getting younger and younger, and are often themselves the victims of predatory practices. So if we are all getting gamed, who’s the winner in this situation?
A great discussion about NEON DEMON and this subject was held at a roundtable interview between Director Nicolas Winding Refn, Composer Cliff Martinez, AMFM Magazine’s Christine Thompson, Chris Lambert from Film Colossus, and Kayleigh Hughes at the Hotel San Jose in Austin Texas last week.
Conversation With Nicolas Winding Refn and Cliff Martinez
On how the males characters are used in Neon Demon
NICOLAS: The males are written as the girlfriends in the movies. You know when you see other movies there’s a guy, and he meets a girl. They’re usually there for a plot point, as a sidekick.
The joke between me and Elle was now the guys are “girlfriends,” because it’s all about women. The four male characters are written very specifically in that they each represent certain definitions of the story. We can start with her boyfriend, the young good natured guy, who just has all the right opinions. But he’s also very hypocritical, because behind all the right opinions, he can’t argue against “Well if she wasn’t beautiful you wouldn’t even have looked.” So he’s completely like everyone else.
Then you have the fashion photographer, who represents a certain sense of authority in the world of quality and that fashion is an artistic expression.
CHRISTINE: HE’S COLD
NICOLAS: He is cold. He’s one that uses the women as pure props but he’s not doing an evil or degrading thing, he’s just feeding a higher machine. What I find interesting is that the beauty industry generally is geared towards women, would you agree with that?
NICOLAS: So he in as sense, is not an authority. He is a portal into that world.
On the fashion industry and Beauty
KAYLEIGH HUGHES: IT’S GEARED TOWARDS WOMEN, BUT IT DOESN’T NECESSARILY COME FROM WOMEN AT THE HIGHEST LEVELS.
NICOLAS: But when you say highest levels, what do you mean?
KAYLEIGH HUGHES: The people creating the standards…
NICOLAS: ..are generally women. If you look at the fashion magazines they are all edited by women. So the question is, who is the real predator and who is the real lamb?
And that’s why the men are in places, as a theme, they had no function. If you take Keanu Reeves, who is the hotel owner, he represents the sexual threat that Jesse fears because she’s a virgin. She fears penetration in a violent way. He represents the danger toward innocence. He’s like the wolf.
On the top you have the designer, who represents the heightened version of the world that the film takes place in, who states “beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” because that’s what that industry is about and when it comes down to that it’s what they value.
So when you have that scene at the restaurant after the fashion show, where they are having their celebration and at this time Jesse has gone through a transformation, and she brings her boyfriend into that world. It’s like me coming into the world of high fashion through a magazine, looking it and thinking, well this isn’t everything, this is so fake, beauty is not everything there is something else, and then somone saying to me, “yeah well if they weren’t beautiful you wouldn’t be looking.” So, a lot of the movie has very specific themes that run into each other and entangle.
CHRISTINE: METAPHORS, LIKE NARCISICISSM, AND OTHERS. I THOUGHT IT WAS CURIOUS THAT THE POOL WAS EMPTY THAT SHE WAS STARING INTO,..NARCISSUS WAS STARING AT HIS OWN REFLECTION WHICH WAS LOOKING BACK AT HIM. WAS THAT ON PURPOSE?
NICOLAS: Yes, because the reflection had already entered her, she’d already found it. Narcissus, who swam after his reflection, and was ridiculed for it – she’s gone one step beyond. She’s actually morphed into it. And now the swimming pool is danger, because she’s going to fall into it and die.
NICOLAS: Of course, that’s where the film becomes a cautionary tale on the dangers of narcissism. At the same time, the movie celebrates narcissism as a virtue, because she’s basically saying “I am what I am, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
KALEIGH HUGHES: HOW DO YOU RECONCILE THAT WITH HER MEETING HER DEMISE IN THE WAY THAT SHE DOES?
As a character, as the film progresses it becomes less about her journey and the others view of her. Ruby, half way through, takes over the movie as a protagonist, and Jesse becomes the antagonist, because Ruby is in love with the inner beauty of Jesse, just like the male character is defined in this way, you can have the female character defined in this way. Ruby is all about inner beauty, the viginity, the purity, the innocence that we also hunger for as we both try to cosmetically change our outer view – or like Sarah, fear age. And that’s what makes beauty a complex theme in our society, everyone has an opinion about it.
I have daughters. I can see my 13-year-old beginning to venture into the world of the digital revolution, and there, like Jesse, Narcissus finds his own reflection, we are doing it now, it’s no longert the liquid. So to me, that’s where the film becomes a celebration of it. But her demise, is she has the thing everyone devours. Everyone else clings to it, they fantasize about it, they obsess about “it.” But “it” has nothing to do with men. Nothing. I do not believe that women generally do this because of men.
CHRISTINE: NO, THEY DON’T. AND THE “IT” CHANGES CONSTANTLY. GENERATION TO GENERATION, YEAR TO YEAR, AND THAT’S WHY IT’S SO DISPOSABLE. PEOPLE ARE DISPOSABLE IN THAT INDUSTRY.
NICOLAS: That’s why, in the beginning of this film, the first opening shot is beauty and death.
CHRIS LAMBERT: TALKING ABOUT THEMES IN MOVIES. RED LIGHT BLUE LIGHT WAS A BIG PART OF “ONLY GOD FORGIVES” AND RED LIGHT AND BLUE LIGHT PLAYED A HUGE PART IN THIS FILM AS WELL. FOR YOU IS THAT A WAY OF CONNECTING THE TWO FILMS, OR…
NICOLAS: No, I’m color blind. That’s the only reason I love those colors, I can see them.
CHRIS LAMBERT: THAT’S AWESOME, IT BECOMES EMPOWERING THEN.
NICHOLAS: It’s turning my weakness into my strength.
CURTIS: And I’m deaf. I see white keys and black keys (laughs)
On Scoring The Film
CHRISTINE: HA! I don’t believe that.
KALEIGH HUGHES: CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE WAY YOU SCORED THE DAYTIME SCENES AS OPPOSED TO THE NIGHT TIME SCENES?
CURTIS: I didn’t think I made that much of a distinction. I didn’t dilineate like that. The way I dilineated the film is like Nicolas described as part 1 is melodrama, part two is horror. That was a big divide. Going from scary horror towards the end from the romantic scene at the beginning overlooking the city was a continental divide.
CHRIS: YOU HAD TALKED ABOUT NOT BEING ABLE TO FIT THE BASCHEL CRISTAL INTO THE SCORE. WHY NOT?
Not so much because of the film, but I have baggage that I bring to each project, but one of the things is that I wanted to get more and more electronic, more synthetic. I was consciously trying to think do I want to do that? No, it’s more organic, and the Baschel Cristal is a pretty organic sounding instrument, and I wanted to make the score as plastic and synthetic as possible.
NICOLAS: In the beginning, we talked about a way that we wanted Cliff to have a sound that was unorganic. It had to be artificial.
CHRIS: That really comes through. That first scene where they are at the party, and the girls are floating in space, how the music and lights were hitting it was really cool sonic and light foreshadowing of what was to come.
WHAT KIND OF TECHNICAL THINGS DID YOU ENCOUNTER ON THIS MOVIE AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?
NICOLAS: I put myself in a situation where I make films very inexpensively, so that I can control both the flow of money and the creative vision. Because both go hand in hand. That’s where it begins. And to me there is no such thing as an obstacle. There is a creative challenge, and I think creativity is a lot about turning your obstacles into your strengths. So let’s say you only have $2, and you are shooting in a room. But at least you have $2, and no one is going to tell you what to do. How are you going to use that creatively? That’s what I would love to teach my own children, and whenever I meet other people that want to be filmmakers, it is look, the one thing that can never, ever be taken away from you by anyone. Not even a critical reaction, or a box office failure, or whatever you call it that you are going to encounter. You did it your way. The one thing you have to remember that creative satisfaction for you outweighs any amount of money they can ever pay you. I think that’s what I always try to keep in the back of my head. Then, you have to be smart about it, because it is a financial game. As long as you don’t lose money, generally there’s always people that want to be part of what you do.
I always try to be very clear about what my challenges are, and figuring out how to make them my strengths. That comes with all my life, I had to struggle a lot. I was extremely dyslexic, didn’t learn to read until I was 13, which I have not one good day’s experience in school. I never went to college, I was unable to attend because when you are dyslexic as I am, you can’t fulfill what is considered a normal education. Then I would turn it around and say “Who the fuck want’s to be normal.” Nicolas; Its a sign of genius.
CHRISTINE: I AGREE
NICOLAS: It is, It allows an opportunity to say “What then can I do? What can I exercise? That’s very much to do with parents. I had a lot of support from my mother, she never wanted me to feel like a problem, or that I couldn’t do something, There’s something else. The more you can do that for your children, to say look, there is a norm out there, but the norm doesn’t equal interesting. Norm doesn’t equal happiness. Norm doesn’t even equal equality. I think for our younger generation – and it’s a question that I’ve gotten ever since Cannes (Film Festival) – it’s a question about diversity. “How do you feel?” Or “How do you feel about this reaction?” “ Are you making films for the audience or not?” And “are you choosing vision over story?”
All these are valid questions, but at the same time they are extremely limited, because all it is about is “can you fit into normality?”
CHRISTINE: SPEAKING OF NORMALITY, MUSICIANS ARE ALWAYS TRYING TO TRANSCEND THAT BOUNDARY. THAT’S WHAT THEY ARE ABOUT.
CLIFF: We were talking about that earlier. Musicians from Elvis, to The Beatles, to The Stones, Alice Cooper, The Sex Pistols – contoversy – people always pay extra for that.
On musical influences and Jodorowsky
CHRISTINE: EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER.
CLIFF: People ask me if there were any influences on the score from Neon Demon, and I like to think it was influence free, but I just remembered when you said Brain Salad Surgery, that I did try to channel Keith Emerson on those brief solos. That is the one one thing I paid homage to, role model.
CHRISTINE: “STILL YOU TURN ME ON” FITS RIGHT INTO NEON DEMON. THAT’S COOL. THAT’S WHY I WAS REALLY PLEASED BY THE MOVIE.
CHRIS: That’s interesting what you said about normalcy. People have an expectation as to what they consider normal. Summer blockbusters, they hit plot points. But Cinema is still art and art is supposed to make you feel. Your movies really take a sensation to an extreme place.
CLIFF: We aspire to be the new normal.
KAYLEIGH HUGHES: Can you talk about the character Ruby, and how you transitioned her from a trusted character to a threat?
NICOLAS: You have to go back to the beginning, and you have to go to the first line, which she says “Am I staring?” She is the witch, she is very much based on the Jodorowsky kind of character.
I’m very good friends with Jodorowsky. I had a tarot reading every weekend while I made the film.
CHRISTINE: THAT”S INTERESTING, I WOULD LOVE TO GET A READING BY HIM. HOW WAS THAT?
NICOLAS: It’s amazing. It’s very unique. I use it a lot now. I live in Copenhagen but I very often go to Paris and I see him. Right before we came here we were on a European tour where we were in Paris and I went to him at midnight and spent some hours with him – and before I flew to L.A. for our premiere I had a tarot reading about the film
CHRISTINE: HOW ACCURATE WAS IT?
NICOLAS: Very. But it’s what he says…it’s very very interesting. What he reads into it is extremely precise. It’s very encouraging, because whenever I am in doubt, or when I am “should I or should I not” – we all have those moments of weakness. I speak to him, he yells at me, and says “if you do that, you’re going to die.” And he’s right.
CHRISTINE: YOU MEAN DIE CREATIVELY?
NICHOLAS: Yes, as a human being.
CHRISTINE:: YOUR SOUL.
NICOLAS: Yes, I know a lot about his journey of “Dune,” which in a way became an impossible movie to make, but it inspired every science fiction movie after it. I don’t know if you’ve seen the documentary.
CHRISTINE:: YES, WE INTERVIEWED HIM ABOUT IT.
NICHOLAS: But to go back to Ruby. The idea was that she was the antagonist and Jesse was the protaganist. But then halfway through the movie they would switch and Ruby would become the protaganist.
KAYLEIGH HUGHES: IT’S CURIOUS THAT RUBY WOULD BECOME THE RAPIST WHEN SHE ATTEMPTS TO RAPE JESSE. THAT’S AN INTERESTING CHOICE.
NICOLAS: I think and I am not a woman, but there is a big difference between a female rape and a male rape. The male rape, which is Keanu Reeves, is based on violence and violations and degrading and pain.
CHRISTINE:: AND CHILD PORNOGRAPHY WAS THROWN IN THERE
NICOLAS: There was a certain reference to it, because beauty is becoming younger and younger. My 13 year-old-daughter is a target.
CHRISTINE:: IT’S SCARY
NICOLAS: It’s very scary. When I was teenager, that wasn’t …it was still a little older. But now, the idea of beauty obsession, and longevity shrinking, everything is becoming younger and younger. That to me is extremely terrifying. The idea that it starts to feed on itself, which is what the movie is about, partly. But then when Ruby comes in to Jesse, she generally just wants to be with her. And Jesse stops her…but does she stop her? It’s like Ruby is almost being led on, then thrown away, and all Ruby wants to do is love her, and is rejected.
So of course, she returns to what she knows of rejection, which is death – and at the beginning of the movie, Jesse is also Death.
CHRISTINE: FULL CIRCLE.
NICOLAS: And during the movie, we see other sides of Jesse. Is she another Dorothy? Or is she a deer in the headlights?
KAYLEIGH HUGHES: SHE’S A CHILD.
NICOLAS: Yes, but is she evil? Is she going into this knowing what’s going to happen?
CHRIS: HOW SELF-AWARE IS SHE FROM THE BEGINNING. IT’S ARGUABLE HOW MUCH IS JUST THE FASHION SHOW AND THE EGO COMING INTO IT VS. HOW MUCH EGO WAS ALREADY PRESENT.
NICOLAS: There are three key scenes in the beginning. The first is one is when Ruby says “are you coming?” and (Jesse) smiles, almost like “they bought it, I’m in.” The second time is during the interview with Christina Hendricks. Christina asks about who took the photo? Jesse responds “oh it’s just some guy I met online.”
Then when she meets this very nice boy, with beautiful biceps, he asks passionately and endearingly, “what did they say about my pictures?” – and she lies.
CHRISTINE: SOUNDS LIKE THE FASHION INDUSTRY TO ME.