By Stephanie Brandhuber
Beautiful, visceral, and utterly horrendous, Nicolas Wending Refn’s latest too-cool-for-school film, The Neon Demon, is sublimely disgusting and thoroughly vexing.
The basic premise is a well-known tale of female jealousy and Icarus-like success. When a young and beautiful aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to L.A. in order to chase her dreams, she is hailed as an ingenue and is told by her agent (Christina Hendricks) that she is destined to become a star. She quickly becomes caught up in the superficial underworld of female modelling, and soon finds herself the enemy of every other model fighting to be noticed in this unforgiving business. Thinking she has found a group of trustworthy friends in make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), Jesse realises too little too late that looks and intentions can be all-too deceiving.
The Neon Demon is sleek, stylish, and undeniably seductive, which makes it all the more infuriating. Refn draws the audience in with style-magazine-like sequences, and high-fashion aesthetics, luring us in with the temptation of seeing excessive beauty under megawatt lights and sheaths of jacked-up colour. The film’s initial slow-pacing and the sparkling electronic score by Cliff Martinez hypnotize you, reeling you into a disquieting state of tension. Refn has always been more concerned with visuals and haptics than with narrative and plot, and The Neon Demon is no different in its relentless toying of the senses.
At first, it’s fun, and then suddenly, it’s not. The first half of the film, despite its shockingly poor excuse for a script, is kind of weirdly cool. Its hip-factor gets turned up to eleven when Keanu Reeves shows up as the sleazy owner of the motel where Jesse is staying while in L.A. Everything seems great, and weird, and wonderful, and when a random scene with a wildcat comes on, you can’t help thinking that this is truly a bizarrely amazing cinematic experience. And then all of a sudden, as Jesse’s character begins slipping into the dark pit of the modelling world, the film too begins to spiral into a dark hole of gluttonous self-indulgence, expelling reams of unnecessary and disturbing imagery that do nothing except highlight the vapidness and hollowness of Refn’s attempt to provoke and scandalise.
It’s easy to get lost in the film’s flickering fluorescent lights and Fanning’s wide-eyed beauty. The film is relentless in its attempt to seduce. But its glossy veneer, once broken by the force and magnitude of its utter pointlessness, disintegrates into offensively transparent shock-tactics. The film becomes odious, gratuitous, and hollow. Its initial sense of vapid hipness disappears into a void of needless and wanton excess. Refn isn’t pushing boundaries, he is putting them up against his audience and pointing a neon sign at them screaming “Look, isn’t this cool, and edgy? I’m edgy, right guys? Right?” He throws everything from rape, to necrophilia, to cannibalism into the mix, and the result isn’t innovative, or voguish or even shocking, which is clearly what he so desperately seeks from his work; it’s just unnecessary, gimmicky, and, as a female viewer especially, disrespectful.
When The Neon Demon was screened at The Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, it made headlines for being the most divisive film of the festival. It was met in equal measure with boos and walk-outs, as well as standing ovations and the highest of praises. If there was one thing that was confirmed about this film, it’s that it was all about controversy. And, if measured against this quality alone, the film is nothing short of a resounding success. It is also unabashedly successful in its complete objectification of women, and its perpetuation of negative female stereotypes. Some might argue that the film is meant to be hollow, vapid, and lacking any real depth in order to mirror the shallowness of the modelling world. This is undoubtedly true. However, Refn’s excessive use of the filmic gaze on women’s naked bodies, as well as some crude and overly-suggestive imagery of women, legs akimbo, in pools of blood make for a distasteful reflection of Refn’s questionable morals. These wholly unsavoury scenes go beyond the film’s immediate aims to satirise and swipe at the cruelty of female modelling, and turn the film into a perverted exercise in scopophilia and female degradation.
Refn, through his previous films Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), demonstrated that he is certainly the master when it comes to exploring and depicting masculinity. When it comes to women, however, the only thing Refn succeeds in doing is affirming that he should have a restraining order against all members of the opposite sex. In what could have been an amusing and satirical film about the modelling world, The Neon Demon is instead just a platform upon which Refn chooses to self-congratulate and meditate on his own twisted imagery. Perhaps if Refn could take himself even slightly less seriously, he could have produced a film with a powerful message and a strong directorial voice. As it is, however, The Neon Demon is an exploitative ode to vapidness and egomania, repugnant and deluded in its own sense of self-worth.