Teen star Elle Fanning and divisive director Nicolas Winding Refn both embrace the varied reactions to their new thriller The Neon Demon - but have very different ways of expressing why. Keeley Bolger meets the dynamic duo

When psychological horror The Neon Demon was shown at Cannes Film Festival, audiences were rigidly divided.

On one side were hoarse boos and hurled insults in response to the cannibalistic story of an aspiring model, whose youth and beauty are literally devoured by an image-conscious group of women, which also includes a scene of necrophilia.

Yet, vocal too were its fans, rallying with calls of 'bravo' and, as the credits rolled, rewarding the film with a hand-numbing 17-minute standing ovation.

By now, such marked opposition is part and parcel of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's catalogue, which includes the uncompromising, hyper-violent Drive and Only God Forgives, both starring Ryan Gosling.

While Refn's status as an agent provocateur has been cemented by his recent output, his leading lady Elle Fanning, who plays model-of-the-moment Jesse in the film, is more conventional in her appeal.

Recently turning 18, Fanning has been working since she was two, with her first role as the younger version of her actress sister Dakota, in 2001's I Am Sam.

Since then, she has taken peachy parts in Daddy Day Care, The Boxtrolls and alongside Angelina Jolie as Princess Aurora in 2014's Maleficent, as well as weightier roles in drama Ginger & Rosa, Academy Award-nominated Babel, sci-fi movie Super 8 and as the titular screenwriter's eldest daughter in last year's Trumbo.

Nothing she has worked on compares with the strength of reaction to this dizzying, bloodthirsty movie, however, which sees Keanu Reeves playing a vile and unscrupulous motel owner.

Undeterred, Fanning lapped up the reactions - all of them.

"That's what we wanted with it," says the actress, smiling.

"I was excited to be in Cannes. I'd never been before, and to go with Nic, a veteran, the whole thing was so exciting for me. I'll never forget that moment at the premiere and being in that film. It was so special."

In person, Fanning, who only graduated from high school last month, is all please and thank-yous and wide-eyed enthusiasm, while Refn is unblinkingly focussed and on high alert, you'd imagine, for attacks on his art.

"The diversity [of opinion] isn't everything, it's the only thing," says the director, casting a scrutinous gaze from behind his thick-rimmed glasses.

"Creativity is all about reaction. The revolution of the digital possibilities has made that more and more of a clarity of the future; that being good or bad is almost something that is more interesting in the past.

"The future is more and more wild. Everything is accessible. Everything is potential, so the Cannes reaction made the movie what it was meant to be. A reactionary piece of entertainment."

That the film is female-led, with leading roles for Donnie Darko and Inherent Vice actress Jena Malone and Bella Heathcote, who is currently filming Fifty Shades Darker, as well as model and Mad Max: Fury Road actress Abbey Lee. This immediately appealed to Fanning.

"When I found out that Nic was doing a film about models and basically all the main characters were women, it didn't seem like something he had done previously, so that was kind of a surprise to me, but right away I wanted to do it," says the rising star, who's set to appear alongside Nicole Kidman in upcoming comedy How To Talk To Girls At Parties, and in Sofia Coppola's remake of Clint Eastwood Western, The Beguiled.

"I love it because the guys in the film are like the needy girlfriends in other films. It's a role reversal and that's pretty cool," she continues. "There aren't many films like that, especially in movies that are for girls, with teenage girls that are as smart and deep and edgy as this. It's nice to have a film like this one."

A particular high point was celebrating her 17th birthday on set during filming.

"My birthday's April 9, and on April 8 we filmed until midnight," says Fanning, who takes ballet lessons in her spare time.

"So at midnight they brought out two cakes, and Keanu Reeves sang happy birthday to me. It was so nice."

As someone ticking off these milestone years in Hollywood's golden circle, what is Fanning's experience of her industry's ideals of youth and beauty?

"I was born in Georgia in a really small town, but then moved to a LA when I was still young. I've experienced looking at the big city in that way, and you do realise you're the young one that comes in and people do look at you differently," she explains.

"They want to find out, 'Who are you? What's your agenda?' - it is kind of like that. I mean I'm not a model, but you go to photo shoots and things, and that is so about the way you look.

"Being a young girl in movies, fashion goes along with it, because you go to red carpet things and you need to look good and wear certain designers," she reasons.

For Refn though, who adds that he is surrounded by beauty at home with his wife and two daughters, whether you're the latest sensation in Hollywood or a has-been, the subject is a timeless one.

"The currency of beauty continues to rise and never falls," he says. "As we evolve, the lifespan of beauty becomes more limited, while our obsession with it becomes more and more extreme."

:: The Neon Demon is released in cinemas on Friday, July 8