On The Neon Demon, consumption of youth, and Nicolas Winding Refn's buried sense of humor
The Neon Demon Broad Green Pictures
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenplay: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham
Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Alessandro Nivola, Karl Glusman and Keanu Reeves
Rated R / 1 hour, 58 minutes / 2.35:1
June 24, 2016
(out of four)
Nicolas Winding Refn is not often accused of having a sense of humor about himself. Nor, for that matter, is his work considered to have much levity at all. And yet for all his apparent, or presumed, self-seriousness and artistic high-mindedness, it's the twinkle of impish humor that begins to conspicuously stand out. That it goes so frequently unacknowledged is perhaps unsurprising, given how carefully he calibrates his films' sense of grandiosity. The oppressive, drawn-out silences, the pregnant gazes, the menacing darkness.
But seeing it all with a slightly more comic bent recharacterizes that moody posturing as something else entirely, leading me to consider that maybe, probably, we're not meant to take it quite as dead seriously as we think he wants us to. There's no doubt there's a self-reverential tone that pervades his recent efforts in particular - the fact that he emblazons his title cards for The Neon Demon with his own initials should be proof enough of that - but his resolute self-awareness is as playful as it is self-aggrandizing, if not more so.
It's hard to think otherwise when he opens this film with such an eye-catching set of images - a motionless young woman draped across a couch, crimson blood dripping from her neck down her arm, against a backdrop of piercingly gorgeous blue - and then, just a couple of scenes later, has a character flippantly dismiss those images - Refn's own - as cheap amateurism. The pronouncement comes from a modeling agent played, in a brief cameo, by Christina Hendricks, who insists that her newest client, Jesse (Elle Fanning), can do much better than the bush-league modeling gigs procured by the lapdog amateur photographer boyfriend (Karl Glusman) she's got hanging around. (Those mocked images are also featured prominently in the film's marketing materials, for what it's worth.)
Refn's harshest critics would probably write off his self-effacing gesture as a calculated deflection - and me for giving him too much credit. Nonetheless, I can't ignore the nag that his magisterial tendencies are camouflage for a buried jest. (This is also true of his popular Drive, which, once we get past its veneer of detached hipness, turns out to be gleefully, comically absurd.) Even The Neon Demon's most overtly facile moment - a big-shot fashion designer declaring, in a bastardization of an already bastardized Lombardi quote, "Beauty isn't everything, it's the only thing" - is so nakedly on-the-nose that it feels like he's trolling. He must be.
Which is not to say that The Neon Demon works, at least not necessarily. The truth is, I don't know if it does or doesn't. If I saw it again, or thought about it for another week or so, I could end up giving it a whole star more or a whole star less. (Two-and-a-half stars is, I must confess, the most cowardly rating on this scale. Star ratings are convenient and silly.) It is, if nothing else, a movie that defies simple reactions. That's despite the severe detractors who claim exactly the opposite - that it's a pretty but glib, insipid film that earned every jeer and hiss it received at Cannes; that it's a pretty film with only shallow things to say about beauty, or showbiz, or women, or image, or genre. And that's assuming it's given credit for trying to say anything at all.
But that's one thing - the one thing - I'm sure about here. That the film is expressing itself with much more complexity than its initial reputation suggests, and is thus worthy of closer attention. (The Neon Demon may, ultimately, be terrible. But if so, it will have really made the effort to get there.) That Refn is making a film about inherently (or presumably*) superficial subject matter - modeling and high fashion - and the immediate criticism is that the film is superficial is no coincidence; it's a direct and easy line of thought that Refn is surely aware of. Perhaps, now that I think about it again, Hendricks' line about the amateurism of the film's opening images was as much an anticipatory nod to his critics as anything else.
* Refn might disagree with the assessment/stereotype that modeling and fashion are ultimately superficial - that what a successful model can physically get across is rare and profound in its own right - which might be another way to interpret his approach to this material, his surface-level visuals and provocations.
It's true that The Neon Demon is quite pleasing to the eye, but not for its own sake. Refn paints a stark distinction between night and day, in service of a disquieting conflation of the living and the dead. Daytime - or even brightly lit interior spaces - is conspicuously plain. Even during an outdoor photo shoot featuring two models dressed in bright summer colors, Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier emphasize the chilly dispassion of it.
But when nightfall hits, it's another story. This world at night - or at least in the dark - is a place transformed by blood and fabricated sex and a prowling danger, the desaturated calm replaced by bold monochromatic and bichromatic splashes of red and blue, a whole id coming alive under shadow of night. The great Cliff Martinez's extraordinary electronic score evokes Los Angeles noir, and shadowy fantasy and horror of decades past; the score's eccentric pulse suggests deviance, pursuit, anguished anticipation, like we (and, more importantly, Jesse) are being nudged, thrust, toward a void in which she'll surely be consumed. As the hints and nods to vampirism and death abide, The Neon Demon starts to seem a bit like Dario Argento doing a Michael Mann film - or vice versa. In a lot of ways, Refn shows more commonality with stricter formalists like Kubrick or Peter Greenaway (in composition and use of color) than with the genre filmmakers he's willfully lumped himself in with (Jodorowsky and Bava among them). I'd argue this movie may have been better off going full genre; still, he melds those impulses with real bravado.
While the common inclination, I think, for a movie about a world obsessed with youth and body image would be to have the characters staring into quasi-symbolic mirrors for half the movie, Refn keeps that motif to a minimum (it's present, because it almost can't not be, but limited). Instead, there is a persistent angular design to his surfaces that refracts and contrasts characters (or multiple views of the same character, in some cases) such that separate visual planes may as well be different physical spheres altogether. That plays directly into the film's attitude on the lies, manipulations and ambiguities of image itself - specifically in Los Angeles and its industries of supposed glamour. The Neon Demon in fact has an acrid satirical voice, and its precisely chosen lead actress makes for a useful vessel for it. As it navigates this realm of fashion and runways and photo shoots, the key is not the beauty every character keeps having lengthy conversations about, but youth. Or rather, youth is defined as beauty. It's not enough that Jesse is 16, or that Elle Fanning was, in fact, 16 when filming began, but that she definitively looks 16 - certainly no older - and that certain angelic purity in her looks and voice becomes a point of discussion among other characters. Even in that early scene in the agent's office, when Hendricks' character instructs Jesse to list her age as 19 ("18 is too on-the-nose"), Jesse defeatedly stresses that no one is going to believe she's that old.
Refn and co-writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham are well aware of what they're doing, and the cagey ways they're biting the hands that feed them. But bite they do (well, it's more like a nibble), which is only fitting considering the cold sense of vampirism that takes hold around Jesse. Her youth is her in, it opens every door, and it is there to be envied, pursued, and finally consumed. (In a roundabout way, this movie is somewhat reminiscent of the ideas in Fruit Chan's Dumplings.) The darkness that envelops her has an allure all its own; and when the sun comes up, the spell is broken.