Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Elle Fanning, Abby Lee, Jena Malone
Spoilers Within: Yes
My opinion on Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest anti-Hollywood feature has vacillated wildly between dubious respect and unmitigated loathing, neither of which dominate for a longer time than the other. As a spiritual successor to his misanthropic Only God Forgives, I should have despised The Neon Demon: a static and frustrating descent into the horrors of jealousy and desire. While there were frequent moments I will shun, it was also balanced in such a way that I find myself more comfortable with arguing the middle ground.
Before anything, it’s superficiality is key. Refn has always had an identifiably tributary vision to revered directors – Jodorowsky and Argento burst forth from every seam – but before now, that visceral experience has rarely gelled in the way that his films called for. The A-theme – about the underbelly of ugliness in L.A.’s cutthroat world of fashion and beauty – is forced into the frame in every scene. This lack of nuance is purposeful and succeeds in being both obnoxious and alluring as we’re involuntarily bound to watch Elle Fanning’s Jesse walk down a catwalk while neon lights and a pulsating triforce fill the screen, or watching a strobe-lit display of bizarrely floating body contortion. These sudden changes in visuals rip you out of the narrative but place you in an entirely separate environment with such indelicacy that it’s truly hard to turn away from. Toward the end, this superficially stylistic appearance is played to the point of nausea (the final 10-or-so minutes as the girls’ stomachs churn and growl – mingled with the excellent sound design – was genuinely uncomfortable) proving this veneer of falsehoods is perfectly in line with the surface-level text.
Nicole Daniels and Courtney Sheinin’s casting was exact: stuffy, mundane chatter combined with blank stares and a constant will for approval, their patterns of speech and emotions (or lack thereof) were realised perfectly. The only people with any level of intellect were Dean (Karl Glusman) and Alessandro Nivola’s unnamed fashion designer and, to an extent, Jesse. Her capacity in understanding the industry coupled with her general intelligence is noticeably better than Abby Lee and Bella Heathcote’s Sarah and Gigi, inciting a level of jealous rage from the duo of mindless models that would eventually become the downfall of them all.
Now onto the elephant: the necrophilia scene. A scene that was well and truly gratuitous, and had absolutely no sway on the arc of Jena Malones’ Ruby. With one scene, Refn pushed the film into the realm of a joke that it had hinted at but rarely committed to. It makes a trivial amount of sense in that Ruby’s job as a makeup artist and a mortuary beautician would put her in these mindsets, but to show it was pure shock value for the sake of it. Her attempt at a sapphic encounter with Jesse and the immediate, forceful rejection could have resolved in a much less adolescent-minded way. This crude nastiness puts the film in a narrative stall and sacrifices its consistent commentary, and that makes it harder to stomach once the credits have rolled. It’s first and foremost a provocation, one that Refn clearly revels in; he’s making what he wants without worry of what I -and thousands of others – think. This arrogance was hard to overcome with Only God Forgives but here it’s partly congruent with its surface-level cosmetics, even when it’s hugely and unpleasantly unnecessary.
With regards to Only God Forgives, there we had a film that basked in its mean-spirited pessimism. The Neon Demon is pessimistic, sure, but it’s much more palatable: perhaps because we weren’t expecting another film in the (more restrained) style of Drive, or perhaps it’s because this visual aesthetic is fully embodied through its characters and themes. Maybe Refn’s next film will further this resolve and be both visually lavish and narratively sound.
The Neon Demon is a hell of a cinematic experience: one that even its most vocal detractors will have a hard time ignoring the many positives. It’s just that often, these positives skirt so close to the line of offensiveness (the necrophilia scene insultingly stepping over that line) that it’s a hard film to defend in its entirety. It’s gloriously experimental, and though it practically screams its motifs at you with a booming synth-wave soundtrack from Cliff Martinez, its single-note ‘beauty is hideous’ argument all but works. And for all its messy imperfections, it was elegantly beautiful. It’s going to be an instant classic, whether you or I like it or not, and Refn knows it.