The Neon Demon

July 15, 2016


Nicolas Winding Refn begins his latest, The Neon Demon, by stamping his initials on the background of the opening credits.  Not just for a moment, but through virtually the whole thing.  His supreme sense of authorship could evoke a great sense of pride in his work or a high level of pretension to his own abilities.  I’m not against the notion, per se, though it does strike me as a little gauche to do underscore every other credit by making sure nobody forgets this is your baby, but to do so puts the audience in an almost combative sense of expectation.  “This better be some high art, dude, because your lack of humility is jarring.”  There’s no doubt Refn has a sense of style, even if he’s a little reliant on Kubrickian camera moves to evoke his states of dreamlike dread.  His larger problem is his lack of self control, something he wears as proudly as Lars Von Trier (another filmmaker I run very hot and cold on), though lacking the latter’s occasional sense of cutting introspection. 

Jesse (Elle Fanning) has recently moved to LA to begin a modeling career.  At a small photo shoot (cut throat as it is), she meets a makeup artist (Jena Malone) who takes a shine to her.  Somehow she gets into an agency, where she’s told (not for the first time) that she’s going to go far.  Queue Ruby’s model friends, Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, respectively), who begin by bullying before moving into outright jealous contempt, yet still not repulsing Jesse enough to run miles away.  The photographer from her first shoot is also her sort-of almost boyfriend, Dean (Karl Glusman), who sits in for the era of innocence (though not so innocent as he’s an older guy photographing and hitting on a 15 year old girl, which I guess is the joke) that Jesse will leave behind that will, of course, lead to the unsurprisingly brutal finale. 

If this all sounds rather trite to you, it is.  And I suppose that’s also part of the point, which isn’t really the get out of jail free card Refn might think it is, especially as the tone is so portentous that you can’t help but think he wants you to take his wild beast in in the bedroom metaphor seriously (which I suspect he does given the ungodly amount of time he spends building up to it).  The slow pace of the almost disconnected and surreal sequences forces you to stare and consider, which is a crucial mistake in a genre that’s so overdone there’s nothing much there beyond the obvious. 

There’s a scene where Refn cribs almost directly from the devastating documentary Girl Model for the visual set up of a bright, empty space where a group of women sit in their underwear to be judged by an expert who can just tell if someone has “it”.  That documentary was about a horrific industry converging with dire economic prospects and a grim future of alienation and sexual abuse – here it’s used as just another scene depicting Jesse’s rise and, more intriguingly, Sarah’s fall (the following scene in the bathroom is perhaps, it should be noted, the best in the film). 

Refn should be credited, though certainly not without huge assists from cinematographer Natasha Braeir and especially continual not-so-secret weapon musician Cliff Martinez, whose scores continually raise graphic design advertising looks to a level of beautiful, electronic menace.  It’s not for nothing that the second best scene, in which Jesse’s runway debut is depicted as an isolated walk through strobe lights and geometric mirrors, evokes John Foxx’s Metamatic. 

Despite all this, it can’t transcend it’s glumly dull premise and laugh-less approach to “satire”.  I was oft-reminded of Claire Denis’ beautiful and haunting foray into horror, Trouble Every Day, in which a long, slow, self-consciously edited and paced film pushes forward the tone of disquiet and eerie dread while exploring something about the primal nature of passion – all the infected can do to satiate the overwhelming, uncontrollable feelings of love is to devour.  A similar tack and, on the surface level, similar use of horror tropes are used here to make the not-too-surprising point about LA and the Beauty Industry devouring its young.  If that’s all you’ve got, you’d better remember that shallow pleasures often involve actual pleasure, but there’s very little of that here amongst the tedium. 


One Response to “The Neon Demon”

  1. Great review. I watched the trailer and wasn’t really sure what it make of it. Like Refn is known for, this movie sure is unique and interesting in it’s own way. I will want to check it out though because it looks very aesthetically pleasing. Would you perhaps be interested in sharing your work on Moviepilot/Creators? Feel free to shoot me an e-mail so I can expand on that. My contact details are on my blog.

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