|Scene from The Neon Demon|
In 2011, director Nicolas Winding Refn saw himself in a lawsuit over his film Drive. It was claimed that it was misrepresented as a conventional action movie. To general audiences, it was a travesty of boredom. Five years and two movies later, it's hard to imagine what the audience appalled by atmospheric driving sequences would have to say about The Neon Demon: a film that's rich with provocative, sometimes disturbing, imagery that earned a healthy dose of boos at Cannes and for some reason is seen this past weekend in wide release. While a beautiful example of postmodern art, it's a film whose fans will be greatly isolated from the general consensus due to Refn's cryptic style that turns him from an auteur of masculine aggression simply into an endurance test. There's a lot to like about The Neon Demon. One just has to accept that it's buried underneath Refn's clear and distinct vision that is sometimes unpleasant or pretentious.
The story follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old Georgian girl who masquerades in Los Angeles as a 19-year-old model thanks to her enviable good looks. She quickly finds herself immersed in a variety of dangerous and perverse situations, often involving seedy landlords (Keanu Reeves) and shallow models (Bella Heathcoe). It's a competitive market, and one that sees Jesse often strutting in her underwear among tall, skinny women being judged for the extra inches. It becomes a macabre embrace of female objectification as they are seen almost as if naked trophies on a shelf, being photographed with strobe-light effect cinematography. The story devolves into a deeper and scarier horror story that first plays on the dangers of L.A. culture before finishing in Refn's familiar neurotic violence.
The one noteworthy difference is that this is Refn's first venture into female-lead cinema. Having made a career over 20 years on violent men, he reached parody level with Only God Forgives and found himself in a bit of a crisis. Even if The Neon Demon sees the filmmaker favoring the more confounding nature of his cinema, it seems like estrogen has refueled some of his passion. There's Freshman college-level debate on the fashion industry sprinkled in to give the story an extra weight. There's some of his most ambitious, colorful cinematography yet as man scenes appear like fashion magazine spreads with his fetishistic bent. It's a film that relies on self-indulgence and occasional vapidness to get its point across, and it creates one of the most frustratingly singular films since Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. The question isn't if it's a good Refn movie. It definitely has the aspirations. The better question is if you can handle whatever it is he is trying to say.
In recent interviews, Refn has claimed that he wanted to make a film that is practically every genre. You name it. There's horror, comedy, action, and everything else; yet to compare it to David Lynch is a massive insult. This is by little means a great commentary on the fashion industry nor does it succeed at whatever its subtext was meaning to say. It's often best enjoyed solely on a visceral level, letting the images play out in real time. The only thing that really does work in his advantage is that his direction builds to the macabre core that will divide audiences. The final 20 minutes is where the film officially transitions from an occasionally Nicholas Sparks-esque romantic drama into a series of disturbing, challenging images that are best left to discovery. Some of them are downright repulsive and confusing. The ending also isn't very satisfying. Still, if you are into art in all of its divisive potential, you may have trouble totally writing off The Neon Demon or its many, many flaws. The balance of beauty and repulsion is present enough in the frames that this film's legacy may be reduced to screen cap culture on Tumblr.
This isn't an easy film to watch. Comparatively, it tries to be a darker, more sexual, more violent version of Black Swan (but with the modeling world). The humor is definitely pitch black here and Fanning is definitely good here in a role that sees her slowly devolve into a shallow core. The film is voyeuristic and giddy about its core impulses in ways that sometimes pay off. Its dialogue may rarely rise above pedestrian, but it creates a fantastical vision that is more rewarding as an experience than a story. The reliable Cliff Martinez sprinkles his score with fairy tale elements, whose echo chamber mixed with electro-pop adds to the unnerving atmosphere. If nothing else, the sound design of this film is one of the most jarring in any film of recent years. It's sometimes unpleasant with purpose, while other times simply unpleasant. It is a film that rewards those naive or bold enough to see it in cinemas by turning the story into its own form of exhibitionism. How long you end up staying is your call.
The Neon Demon is such a singular vision and so defiant in good tastes at times that it's hard to call it garbage or a masterpiece. It's Refn managing to resuscitate after the lethargic Only God Forgives. It is far from his best, but it does give promise to him hopefully finding new ground to cover in whatever comes next. If nothing else, this film embodies the potential of cinema as an endurance test. It rewards those wishing to see something new and unexpected. However, it doesn't do much to fill out the anemic story (skinnier than its co-stars), and may resonate more on a visual level. It isn't a terrible thing, especially if macabre looks at beauty mixed with cryptic fairy tale iconography is your fix. It won't change the world, but it will definitely traumatize the viewer for better or worse. It's your choice to determine if that's a compliment.