CANNES, France — Elle Fanning didn’t make her prom last Friday because her new movie was premiering at the Cannes Film Festival — so she brought the prom to Cannes.
On Sunday afternoon, sitting on an apartment terrace overlooking the French Riviera town, she recalled how she told her “best friend” she would be skipping their big night.
“I had to call him, like, ‘Oh, I have to go to Cannes.’ But then he flew out here, so he came to the premiere and we had our own prom night,” she said. “It was the best night of my life.”
The bubbly 18-year-old might sound like a typical teen but she’s anything but. Her outfit that day consisted of a cream pussy-bow blouse with matching pants by Victoria Beckham, paired with Gucci slides — hardly your typical adolescent getup.
Then there’s the movie. “The Neon Demon” split Cannes critics with its portrayal of a dystopian fashion industry, where psychotic models are scrutinized by predatory designers and photographers on a quest for ever more short-lived beauty.
“Jaw-dropping depravity,” screamed the headline of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, which focused on the movie’s depiction of cannibalism and lesbian necrophilia. Its director, Nicolas Winding Refn, proudly proclaimed himself “the Sex Pistols of cinema.” Fanning appeared delighted by the controversy.
“I think that’s honestly the best thing — you want to create a reaction. That’s what filmmaking is about — it’s about people disagreeing and discussing and having their own opinions about it,” she said. “It gets people thinking, because it’s such a different film.”
Her performance carries the story, which is light on dialogue. She plays Jesse, a 16-year-old orphan who arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of modeling. She is quickly anointed the next big thing, but her success turns the doe-eyed ingénue into a cold narcissist, and arouses the envy of her rivals.
The actress, who stars opposite Bella Heathcote and former model Abbey Lee, whittled down her already slim frame for the part.
“But I didn’t lose a crazy amount of weight. I think also for Jesse, she’s the new girl, she’s kind of fresh, so it’s OK if she kind of was baby-faced. She hasn’t really hit that world yet. She’s not really starving herself, she’s new to it,” she demurred.
In a casting call scene, Jesse is asked to walk in underwear, sending the fashion designer — played by Alessandro Nivola — into a quasi-comical trance. “Beauty isn’t everything — it’s the only thing,” he declares in a later scene.
A fashion fan who has sat front row at shows for Miu Miu, Chanel, Saint Laurent and Topshop Unique, Fanning is close to Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy. Nonetheless, she is critical of the milieu.
“I grew up kind of admiring fashion and loving it and respecting the creativity of it and how beautiful it is. But then after doing this movie, it’s so interesting, because it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s just really all about the way you look.’ You know, it’s totally a physical aesthetic and it’s a lot of pressure on those girls,” she mused.
“I guess in a way some auditions for movies can be like that as well, but the modeling world is very extreme,” she added.
Promotional shots for the film show her reclining in a metallic blue Emporio Armani dress, blood gushing from her slit throat. But Fanning downplays the movie’s gore factor, which includes a stomach-churning ending.
“Our film is horror, but it’s not entirely a horror film in a way,” she said. “The horror of it is more that we’re kind of, like, telling the future of what could happen to this beauty-obsessed world, which is what makes it so terrifying, I feel, and what makes it horrifying.”
Ironically, the film is likely to prove a hit with the very people it skewers.
Director of photography Natasha Braier delivers gorgeous shots that appear lifted from a fashion editorial, while Cliff Martinez underscores the glacial glamor with a Giorgio Moroder-inspired electronic score.
Working on a limited budget, Refn — who has shot ads for brands including Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and H&M — tracked down a set of anamorphic lenses that flatter the skin.
Costume designer Erin Benach — who famously put Ryan Gosling in his scorpion-embroidered satin jacket in “Drive” — rolls out a succession of striking outfits by labels including Saint Laurent.
“That was kind of the question for editing and filtering for myself: Is this good enough for one of those film moments?” Benach said. “I didn’t even want to bring it into a fitting unless I felt like it had that level of impact and could kind of carry a scene to that point.”
One example is the custom-made Giles Deacon gown with a Swarovski crystal-embroidered bodice that Fanning wears in a pivotal scene that shows her preparing to hit the runway for the first time — and falling in love with her reflection in the process.
“I think it was really interesting because we didn’t want it to become about exposing her skin that much,” said Benach. “That dress worked really well for us because it covered her, it created a lot of light fractures that we wanted and reflections and shine.”
Fanning described it as one of the most challenging sequences in the movie. “There isn’t any dialogue, so you’re like, ‘How am I going to show that change without saying anything or really doing anything?’ It’s all in the look and the eyes and that expression changing,” she noted.
Echoing one of Jesse’s lines in the film, the actress says she has no problem with her appearance.
“I mean, well, I’m happy with the way I look. I am. But I also think that people should be. There’s always insecurities growing up, especially for girls — it’s hard. I grew, like, seven inches in a year and I was kind of awkward. You go through those weird stages,” she said.
“I just turned 18, so I’m like, ‘Oh, I think this might be just the way that I look for a while now because I’m, kind of, a woman.’ And it’s a weird reality check when you look at yourself in the mirror and you’re, like, ‘OK, this is my face. This is what I was given.’ You can’t help but judge yourself,” she continued.
“Then again, you can’t really change it, unless you’re going to do plastic surgery and things like that. You have to be comfortable with yourself.”
Her ballet training shows on the red carpet, where Fanning displays exceptional poise. She wowed onlookers at her Cannes premiere in a princesslike pale pink embroidered bustier gown by Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad.
“It’s about core strength and obviously posture is the main thing. I always was very aware of not slumping over too much. I’ve also grown to be comfortable with my height, so it’s nice to kind of own that and feel confident. With ballet, you get so in touch with your muscles and different ways to move your body. It’s great in editorial shoots because you can move in certain ways, and I’m double-jointed,” she noted.
But the young actress is ready for audiences to see a less fragile side to her. She describes “The Neon Demon” as a feminist film, noting: “All the boys in it are like the needy girlfriends in other movies, so I’m enjoying playing kind of strong women and portraying that on screen.”
She recently wrapped “A Storm in the Stars,” in which she plays Mary Shelley, noting the 19th-century English author was only 17 when she wrote “Frankenstein.”
“It’s good to kind of mix it up. I like surprising people and the challenge of it. Everyone has light and dark sides to them, so it’s fun to kind of show both sides,” she concluded.