Good luck getting Nicolas Winding Refn or anyone he’s working with to describe THE NEON DEMON as anything akin to the popular Disney fairy tale Snow White. Refn is a notoriously bizarre fellow, and one who appears to take himself and his art very seriously. However, he’s also become an extraordinarily successful indie filmmaker, and thus each new title he produces is subject to more scrutiny and speculation. With PUSHER he came out of nowhere; with DRIVE he returned; now, he’s thoroughly established as a writer and director responsible for the likes of VALHALLA RISING (which actually preceded DRIVE but was missed by most until it popped up on Netflix) and ONLY GOD FORGIVES in addition to his two main hits.
THE NEON DEMON, due out this month, looks to be a twisted film about beauty, innocence, and greed. We highlighted the trailer not long ago, but just to recap Elle Fanning will play the role of Jesse, an aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles and encounters a group of women who would do anything to acquire the beauty and vitality she possesses. Keanu Reeves, Jena Malone, and Christina Hendricks also star.
Now, stop us if that plot in connection to Elle Fanning sounds at least vaguely familiar. In 2014, the young actress starred in the blockbuster fantasy film MALEFICENT, which was essentially a twist on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale that also incorporated elements from several different fairy tales. Primarily, the film concerned Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent character, a forest guardian torn between good and evil and bound to betray the young princess Aurora (Fanning) despite having grown to love her. The betrayal comes in the form of a curse that will land Aurora in an endless sleep that can be broken only by the kiss of true love (aka the Sleeping Beauty story). However, the film also felt close to the Snow White narrative, in that Maleficent has been presented as a friend of that tale’s evil queen before, in addition to because MALEFICENT showed that there were women envious of Aurora’s beauty and innocence.
Consider too the fact that the Snow White story remains one of the most popular Brothers Grimm tales in modern culture and entertainment. It was only a few years ago that SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN came out, and despite a mediocre critical reception and a sequel that more or less flopped, that film made close to $400 million. It’s fair to say that this number was attained largely thanks to the name “Snow White” being in the title. That’s particularly evident when you consider that MIRROR MIRROR, which came out around the same time to a similarly so-so critical response, made nearly $200 million less. The latter film just wasn’t advertised as effectively as a Snow White story (despite being the more traditional of the two).
It’s also worth noting that Snow White has maintained popularity as theme in the world of online gaming, which is typically reserved for titles and characters boasting more current acclaim. Among games featuring James Dean and Bruce Lee, there’s a “Miss White” title that includes a twist on the iconic “Mirror, mirror on the wall” saying in its description. Complete with Snow White, the seven dwarves, the evil queen, and magic mirrors, it’s a multi-reel slot game that does a nice job of capturing the fairy tale’s spirit. The animations effectively bring Snow White and a mystical forest setting to life around the slot reel.
None of this is meant to distract from THE NEON DEMON so much as to point out that the Snow White narrative is pretty popular in modern entertainment. We’ve seen hints of it and different takes on it in multiple films and games, and with Elle Fanning now so closely tied to one of the bigger modern fairy tale films, it’s hard to imagine Refn didn’t have this in mind when creating THE NEON DEMON. With the core question of Snow White being “who is the fairest of them all?” it certainly seems as if the upcoming film could be viewed as a modern take on the story.
To cap off that theory, it’s also interesting that Refn’s most personal description of the project thus far involved his assertion that there’s a 16-year-old girl inside every man. An interview with Refn revealed that he believes it’s “common knowledge” that this 16-year-old girl resides in every man, as he described his bizarre personal journey through varying degrees of masculinity in filmmaking. The way he tells it, DRIVE allowed him to reach a level of “pristine masculinity, obsessively to the point of homoeroticism,” before ONLY GOD FORGIVES facilitated a return to the mother’s womb—perhaps the opposite of pristine masculinity. Now, Refn says, he can be reborn from that womb as a 16-year-old girl. Okay, then.
Refn went on to note that we define masculinity with strength, and beauty with power, and it’s the latter that he’s focusing on in THE NEON DEMON. And all of this, too, fits into the Snow White concept. The fantasy of a 16-year-old girl so beautiful as to wield power that would make others envious is pretty much right out of the Brothers Grimm’s playbook.
This doesn’t mean that THE NEON DEMON will resemble a Snow White tale overtly, or perhaps at all. But it will be interesting to see if conventional fairy tale elements do show up in the work of a filmmaker who’s become known for his own very distinct brand of dark and twisted.
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