The Neon Demon (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Adam Nayman

Produced by Lene Børglum and Nicolas Winding Refn; directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; written by Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham, and Mary Laws; cinematography by Natasha Braier; edited by Matthew Neman; music by Cliff Martinez; starring Elle Fanning, Keanu Reeves, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, and Alessandro Nivola. Color, 117 min. An Amazon Studios release.

Nicolas Winding Refn has been slowing down for a while now. When he first burst onto the scene with the Copenhagen crime drama Pusher (1996), the Danish director looked to be at the vanguard of a muscular new art-house-action cinema: the film’s gritty, street-level aesthetic was created out of a mix of fast-cut montages and bobbing documentary-style long takes indebted to Martin Scorsese. Over time, however, Refn has altered and refined his approach, casting aside visceral realism for a kind of hyperbolic stylization. First, there was the Alan Clarke-meets-Ken Russell excess of Bronson (2007) and the Viking epic Valhalla Rising (2009), with its psychedelicized Norse mythology. The gloating brutality and ostentatiously glacial pacing of the Ryan Gosling vehicles Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), genre exercises trafficking in lazy American (read: Hollywood) and Orientalist archetypes, was increasingly taken in stride by critics eager to anoint a protovulgar auteur. 

Notwithstanding the embarrassing Cannes reception of Only God Forgives, Refn stands twenty years after his debut as the man behind a recognizable, transnational brand—the sort of director who meets his audience on a strictly last-name basis. As if to underscore this point, the opening credits of the deluxe designer object that is The Neon Demon actually have the initials “NWR” monogrammed into the bottom of the frame. It’s a shame that Refn didn’t take a page from his countryman/rival Lars Von Trier’s book circa Epidemic (1988); keeping the the text superimposed for the duration of the film would have been a good, double-edged joke on the movie’s overall mix of mastery and vanity.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn.

Ego isn’t the worst thing in a director, and even for those of us who don’t like his movies, it’s useless to deny that Refn has the compositional gifts of a major filmmaker. He’s working at the peak of his powers during The Neon Demon’s overture, which cuts magisterially between a young fashion model, Jesse (Elle Fanning) in fake-blood-soaked repose and aspiring photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) capturing her morbidly glamorous image. As Natasha Braier’s camera tracks in predatorily on Jesse, who is done up as a murder victim, we’re aware of the shrinking boundary line between the two frames—Dean’s and Refn’s—until one is finally subsumed by the other, plunging us into a dangerously hybrid subjectivity made up of two different (but similarly objectifying) gazes. 

It would be nice to report that all of the visual gamesmanship in The Neon Demon is equally adroit, but as in Refn’s previous films—or at least the string of them starting with Valhlla Rising—there is a problem with the relationship of form to content. The question is whether Refn’s desire to indulge his “visionary” side detracts from the work rather than successfully defining it. This is particularly slippery insofar as The Neon Demon is a movie explicitly about image making (as per its opening scene), and because its relationship to genre is gauzier than any of its predecessors. With Valhalla Rising and Drive, it was easy enough to strip away the layers of ostentatious camera movement and sound design to locate the sturdy narrative armatures (adventure epic and crime thriller) underneath. The exoskeleton was wispier in Only God Forgives, but still present: its showdown between a transplanted American antihero and an authoritarian Thai bogeyman had a dual/duel structure reminiscent of Kubrick.

If The Neon Demon has a model, it’s classic backstage melodramas à la All About Eve (1951)—or maybe Showgirls (1995). Refn’s urge to explode the genre (one whose violence usually remains latent) in geysers of grue and other bodily fluids means that he’s coloring outside the lines. The Eve Baxter cum Nomi Malone here is Jesse, who is described by everyone who meets her as “beautiful” to the point that it seems to be her sole defining characteristic; more specifically, her beauty is framed as being “natural” in a world where physical appearances are manipulated either externally—i.e., by the skilled ministrations of makeup artists and photographers—or on a molecular level, via plastic surgery and/or self-abasing behaviors. (In one of the script’s many cheap jokes, a gaggle of hungry models listen attentively to the daily specials at a diner before settling on a round of coffees). 

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a young model who appears innocent but is actually as predatory as her ruthless rivals.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse in The Neon Demon.

What’s ostensibly daring about The Neon Demon is how quickly and profoundly Jess— who has arrived in Los Angeles with an orphan-in-the-headlights backstory and just enough money to stay in a tacky motel lorded over by a never-sleazier Keanu Reeves, internalizes the longing and worship of the men and women around her. She turns in surprisingly short order from a sympathetic naif to a scarily self-possessed striver, and this changeover gives the film its tension. When Jesse is selected to bat cleanup in a runway show by a world-famous designer (Alessandro Nivola), she’s filmed in extreme close-up, waiting backstage, and her half-lidded reverie suggests that she’s hypnotized by her own desirability—a point Refn underscores by mutating the sequence into an occult-tinged hallucination showing our heroine transfixed by her own reflection in a mirrored triangular prism.

What’s less interesting is the craven obviousness with which Refn has chosen to represent the characters lusting after this demure object of desire. The Neon Demon is not a realistic film by any means, but it’s still hard to buy the wholly luminous Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcoate as (slightly) older, more experienced models plunged into fugues of insecurity by the arrival of the ingénue, nor Jena Malone as Ruby, a thirtyish makeup artist whose sisterly fixation on Jesse (too) clearly harbors some more self-serving longings. The actresses are stranded in their roles. Refn, who has skirted charges of misogyny before in his masculinist pathos plays (cf. Drive and Only God Forgives’ Clockwork Orange-ish use of naked women as sculptural objets d’art) is showing his ambition (and maybe his conscience) in crafting a film (with two female co-writers) that gets and stays inside a community of women, and yet none of these characters (or the positions they illustrate vis à vis distaff camaraderie or competitiveness) are especially vivid. They’re all just placed in desultory counterpoint to Jesse’s doomed self-regard, which the director ultimately can’t do anything with beyond using it as a punchline in what is finally a two-hour-long shaggy-dog-eat-dog joke (an idea that Joe Eszterhas compressed into a single dialogue exchange in Showgirls). 

Jesse is the "demure object of desire" pursued by the other characters.

As a symbolist, Refn is logily literal, and with a few exceptions—like that marvelous opening, or a Tourneur-inspired interlude with a mountain lion trapped in a motel room—the slowness of the pacing doesn’t deepen our understanding so much as point up the one-to-one ratio between each image and its meaning. (This was also a problem in Valhalla Rising, which was so hilariously on-the-nose that it was impossible to take seriously, and plays better as Viking camp). For all that Refn seems to be chasing after Jodorowsky and Kubrick in The Neon Demon (there’s a “Redrum” reference a few minutes into this one), he doesn’t understand how to use spaciousness in the same insinuating way as his forebears. Instead of conjuring up complex vortexes that pull us in and under, he builds echo chambers—hollow, cavernous structures with nothing inside that barely hold up their own weight. 

In interviews, Refn has played coy about his film’s ultimate meaning, suggesting that it may not have one while also hinting that there’s a point here for those obliged to sort it out. He doth protest too much: The Neon Demon is very obviously meant as a critique of an industry (and a surrounding culture) that values style over substance and promotes seductively unhealthy beauty ideals even as it luxuriates in the same textures (as Mark Peranson writes in Cinema Scope, it’s a film that “has its vomit and eats it too”). The difference between Refn and other filmmakers who enact a similar pas de deux between pandering and pondering—like, say, the Paul Verhoeven of Showgirls—is that he’s so fully and helplessly self-impressed by his project. In this sense, Jesse’s dead-eyed semidream sequence, with its implication of Narcissus ensnared by his own reflection, might be a uniquely revealing piece of self-portraiture. 

It’s good that The Neon Demon’s final sequence is also the film’s funniest, wrapping up with a one-two punch of body-horror sight gags worthy of Cronenberg, But the genuine outrageousness of the climactic tableaux simply points up how much of the film before it feels like provocation-on-autopilot, from the lurking implications of rape (a fantasy Refn cruelly imparts to Jesse instead of owning it himself) to facile dichotomies between Eros and Thanatos (dredged up in a clinically lit bout of same-sex necrophilia) to a Crowley-ish occult feminism that Robert Eggers expressed better (and more humorously) in The Witch. That everything is intended in bad taste is one thing; that it’s all finally more bland than bitter is another. For a film that literally implies that some things about Hollywood are hard to swallow, The Neon Demon goes down a little too easily.

Adam Nayman, a film critic in Toronto, is contributing editor to Cinema Scope.

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine

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