Nicolas Winding Refn reaches a new level of preciousness with this grisly poison pen letter to the fashion industry.
The Neon Demon (2016 – Denmark/France/USA) directed by Nicolas Winding Refn / written by Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham / starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee / cinematography by Natasha Braier / music by Cliff Martinez / companies: Bold Films, Gaumont, Space Rocket Nation, Vendian, Wild Bunch
The Neon Demon opens to the haunting pulse of synthesisers and the morphing of a spectrum of deep colours on frosted glass. Textured, vibrant and seductive, we are now in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Los Angeles, where sixteen-year-old Jesse has just arrived from Georgia to become a model. Played by Elle Fanning, Jesse is immediately noticed by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), high-end fashion photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington) and fellow models Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), not to mention top fashion agent Roberta (Christina Hendricks), who signs Jesse up right away. Jesse has that intangible but essential quality that allows natural beauty to stand on a pedestal above the synthetic charms of industrialised beauty. Beauty is all that Jesse has – even money is a problem for her, as evidenced by the shitty, dangerous motel in which she has a room. But everyone who is anyone in fashion will happily tell her that beauty is all she needs. The only people more aware of the need for “The Thing” are those women who once had it and now want it back. Jesse’s rapid ascent past models whose beauty has already been strip-mined by the fashion industry awakens in her an ultimate level of narcissism and inhumanity. One warning after another appears, telling her to leave this place and return to the world, but she is content to rely on the kindness that her beauty seems to inspire in strangers. But her beauty also inspires a perverse level of avarice in men and women and Jesse’s downfall is the result of her willful ignorance of what lies at the thin end of the wedge, where possession meets desperation.
As someone who is prone to flurries of self-indulgence (this review is 1200 words long), I am willing to give a lot of rope to directors with a penchant for navel-gazing, as long as they are such consummate visual stylists as the man behind modern-day classics like Bronson and Drive. But with The Neon Demon, the rope has gone out so far that it has slipped from my fingers and completely disappeared up Nicolas Winding Refn’s anus. The stylisation of NWR’s initials in homage to the logo of Yves Saint Laurent is charming until it becomes apparent that NWR’s lampooning of the fashion industry has crossed into self-parody. I can think of few directors better suited to putting the current aesthetics of the fashion industry on film and NWR does a fine job of delivering a rare beast: a satirical horror film. But to satirise the fashion industry is to risk alienating your audience with the sheer vacuousness of the setting. NWR frequently keeps his audience at a distance but the most problematic aspect of the experience of this film is that for all its visual splendour and its outstanding soundtrack, The Neon Demon is no more effecting than most fashion editorial photography. Millions of kilojoules of energy are pumped in the direction of a single model and what radiates back at the viewer is an aesthetic, rather than something human. This seems to be of little concern to NWR but it casts an unflattering light on the simplicity of the story, instead of utilising the tremendous energy inherent in that story to create a film that moves forward and looks good doing it.
In NWR’s Drive Ryan Gosling radiated seething potential energy from underneath his super-cool scorpion jacket. Tom Hardy’s performance in Bronson could have provided the world with a new source of green energy if only it had been properly harnessed. In The Neon Demon Elle Fanning has only a handful of moments in which to radiate anything at all before she is smothered in NWR’s overwrought stylisation. The vacuum in which NWR’s characters live is more oppressive than liberating, and while this can be subtle and artful in conveying a distinct lack of trust in human interaction, it dampens the drama in the script and the actor’s performances. As with Only God Forgives, NWR seems more interested in making his protagonist inert and letting the supporting players carry the story by reacting to the protagonist’s very inability to actually do anything.
At his best, NWR can construct drama through atmosphere almost as ably and with as much flair as David Lynch, whose greatest film, Mulholland Drive, exerts tremendous influence over NWR’s portrayal of Los Angeles as a shiny bauble that lures purity and things of incalculable value towards the jaws of corruption. In The Neon Demon, NWR seems adamant that drama is best conveyed in a vacuum, while energy and atmosphere should have their own separate space in which to run wild, preferably to the strains of Cliff Martinez’s outstanding electro-creep score.
The cast navigates NWR’s grizzly fashion world with aplomb, particularly Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as the three women, who most covet Jesse’s powerful natural beauty. Each actor has her moments served up to her on a platter, sprinkled with gold dust, but each of them also forms a persona within the constraints of their hard-edged outlines. Elle Fanning is more than capable of this, as well, and displays flashes of brilliance when placed in one of NWR’s constructions of energy and atmosphere. That she has “The Thing” is of no doubt, but NWR permits no flourishes or embellishments of “The Thing.”
The Neon Demon is more thematically coherent than NWR’s other ponderings on the inertia of the protagonist, namely Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives, yet more incoherent than either in its construction. Frequently, the film feels like a series of music videos interspersed with excerpts from a stage play. But what is most alarming, besides the film’s hair-raising final act (it's worth mentioning that this is decidedly not a date movie), is the way that NWR suddenly doesn’t seem to know what to do when he has two characters talking face-to-face. Put two girls on a bed or a whole bunch of them in a huge, empty space and NWR will deliver the most sublime montage of arresting, gently beautiful images. Stand two characters in front of each other and make them talk and NWR is suddenly a first-time filmmaker with little or no sense of spatial relationships. It is as if so much effort has gone into choosing the right lens and the right angle for one particular frame that no thought at all has gone into staging the conversation, let alone how to cut it together. Given that this is a film about fashion, one could argue that this is oddly appropriate but the film’s slow and deliberate pacing and its draconian emphasis on restraint makes it so that the montage cannot afford to be so sloppy. Even during the less important scenes between Keanu Reeves as a scuzzy motel manager and Karl Glusman as the doe-eyed hunk trying to protect Jesse from the nastiness of LA, one would expect a filmmaker of NWR’s level to show more finesse.
The Neon Demon is a luxurious feast of morbid scenarios and atmospheric dread, worth a look for hardcore NWR fans and fans of the stylish directors he admires, such as Dario Argento and Brian de Palma. But by dousing the verve and dynamism of his own storytelling style in gold paint, NWR has sadly cheapened a film that would be dripping with an eternal beauty of its own if it didn't reflect the disposability of the fashion industry so well.