The Neon Demon: An interview with Nicolas Winding Refn

"It started off as a horror film, but then I also wanted to make it into a comedy with a lot of camp, because I love extremeness, and it needed to have melodrama. And in a way it also became a science fiction movie."

The inability of Nicolas Winding Refn to precisely categorise his own film is to its credit. The Neon Demon is at once gruesome and arch, empathetic and heartless, icy provocation and savage allegory. Employing the same mesmeric tone as his earlier work like Drive and Only God Forgives, the film follows aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) as she attempts to prosper in the cannibalistic world of fashion. As Jesse's beauty warps herself and everyone around her, however, The Neon Demon's fundamental acceptance of human cruelty unsettles as much as its sudden, brutal lurches.

Ahead of its home release today, Nicolas discussed the meaning of the film, and tried to persuade us that narcissism is a virtue.

A wide-eyed teenager going to Los Angeles to “make it” is a plot that's roughly the same age as movies themselves. What appealed to you about using that story?

There was a simplicity to it that I found very interesting. The more simple something is, the more it resonates. That can be confusing because there's a certain expectation for culture to be “complex” and “thought-provoking”, but those are usually devices to steer away from what's really the essence. I believe that less is more, and none is everything.

What do you think is driving Jesse? Is she just looking for fame? Is she trying to escape something?

I think Jesse lives in two parallel universes. On one level she's the deer-in-the-headlights young girl coming to the big city. She feels she doesn't have any particular skills but she can make money from being pretty, so why not take advantage of that? You never know where it might lead to. And then there's another part of her where she's like an evil Dorothy that comes to meet the wizard, but she is the poison that's going to drive the wizard insane because she has what everyone desires, and she knows it. You never really know if she is manipulating or being manipulated, until she goes through the journey of becoming the complete narcissist.

The character of Jesse has to be the most magnetic person in the room, and yet this is a film where every single actor is beautiful – even the sleazy motel owner is played by Keanu Reeves. How did you work with Elle Fanning to create that effect?

Elle is not just beautiful, she's unique. There was no-one else who could have done this but her. If there was no Elle Fanning I don't think I could have made the movie. It was the same thing as Ryan Gosling in Drive. If you weren't gripped by her then there was nothing to take you in – the whole idea is that Jesse has some ineffable quality everyone wants.

How much of The Neon Demon is specifically a comment on fashion? Do you think it's more vicious than other industries?

I don't think fashion is more vicious than other industries, but it's very complex and non-complex at the same time. It is about the most beautiful image, and yet fashion reflects our cultural evolution, our historical evolution. Fashion is very important to us as people. I love fashion personally, I love making fashion commercials and working in advertising. I enjoy the glamour of it, and also the vulgarity and the silliness. It's a great mirror of society.

The models in the film take their competitive nature to extreme, bloody ends. To what extent are their actions allegorical?

It's just normal human behaviour. We're competitive creatures. That's usually seen as something negative, but a lot of The Neon Demon is about celebrating narcissism as a virtue. It's the next human level, our next evolution is a full love of thyself.

Are we supposed to support Jesse throughout? Is there a certain point where we start judging her, and is that hypocritical?

Secretly there's a desire to go through her journey, but then there's morality that's very ambiguous because we still live in a world where narcissism and ego and vanity is usually considered negative. However, we all have it to various degrees, and I think that with the next generation there's more of an acceptance of narcissism, an encouragement of it – the idea that it's okay to completely love oneself openly. For my generation that was a very terrible thing to even admit to, but my kids' generation accept so much more of human behaviour, and fully accepting oneself is a part of it. Of course there's also the hypocritical nature of us, that we all teach this notion of equality, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. All those things that I tell my own children, but I also know that if it's not beautiful I don't look, and neither do you. We have to accept that rather than trying to dismiss it, but it's a horrible feeling. It's also very refreshing because it's like letting go of your own fear of what is right and what is wrong and just accepting what thou will. It's about giving in to your urges.

The Neon Demon is out now on DVD, Blu-ray, Digital and VOD.