It’s fair to say that the films of Nicolas Winding Refn are not for everyone. His previous film, Only God Forgives – which I thought to be a modern masterpiece – was roundly booed by moronic critics at the Cannes Film Festival, and rather predictably, so was his latest, The Neon Demon. It’s easy to understand why blockheads would feel the need to vocally express their dismay at the film, and it’s not all about an inflated sense of self-importance. Refn’s films seem almost designed to be an affront to conservative (socially, not necessarily politically) viewers. The combination of visual excess, genre-defying narratives, violence and challenging sexuality (always certain to put the fear of God into many a critic) are never going to go down well with the sort of people who hand out awards to Ken Loach – which is why they are always interesting, even if not entirely successful.
The Neon Demon is not entirely successful. But its faults are certainly compensated for with its excessive visual style and moments of brilliance that help make a somewhat slight and messy narrative more interesting than it might be in the hands of a less adventurous filmmaker.
At its heart, the film is the old story of innocence corrupted by success in a corrupt world – in this case the fashion industry, oft-criticised for the way it treats young women, be it sexual abuse at the hands of dodgy photographers and model agents, pushed into drug use and anorexia through the demands of designers or used up and spat out before they have even left their teens. All those elements are touched up, at least in passing, in this film – catty asides from models about being too old by 21, agency heads telling the skinny Elle Fanning that some people will think she is too fat – but ultimately, this is a story that we have seen several times before in various forms; at times, the film brought Paul Verheoven’s misunderstood masterpiece Showgirls to mind with the plot development.
Fanning is sixteen year Jesse, newly arrived in LA without the baggage of parents or friends, and determined to become a model. We first see her posing, covered in fake blood, for amateur photographer and potential boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman), and before long she has been signed up by an agent (Christina Hendricks) and starts a meteoric rise up the modeling ranks. Along the way, she becomes friends with make up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), and encounters catty models Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote, Abby Lee), who – already nearing their sell-by date as models – see her as a threat. Rightly so, as it turns out, because she is soon taking work away from them. This, and a fateful rejection of Ruby’s sexual advances, leads to an ultimate confrontation, as the film finally lurches into full psycho horror in the final act.
The controversy surrounding The Neon Demon rather unfortunately sets up viewer expectations that the film just can’t match – which may be a relief for those with delicate stomachs. Stories of the film’s excessive violence and wild offensiveness – courtesy, rather predictably, of the ever-moralising Daily Mail – prove to be wildly inaccurate. Certainly, the film has its gory moments, and one (possibly two, depending on your sensibilities) moment of audacious excess – but much of the violence, which is restricted to the final part of the film in any case, takes place off-screen, and what we do see would not have raised eyebrows even ten years ago. All the necrophilia and cannibalism that has been part of the film’s controversy doesn’t seem that excessive, quite frankly – not if you’ve seen Nekromantik, which was featuring corpse fucking and eyeball gobbling back in 1988.
Where the film does excel in in its visual style, where there really is no restraint. Clearly riffing on the works of Mario Bava (who made his own fashion-based horror film back in 1965 with Blood and Black Lace) and Dario Argento, Refn ensures that every moment of the film looks and sounds gorgeous – vivid colour washes, extraordinary sets and a sense of style that suits the subject, as the camera slowly crawls through the shot and Cliff Martinez’s score pounds away. Refn’s film feels very much like a languid European art house film of the 1960s, deliberately – some might say ploddingly – paced and with a stilted acting style that matches the emotionally dead, two dimensional world that the characters inhabit. This does, admittedly, make it hard to really care about what happens to anyone, and if you want to have a sense of involvement with a film rather than just admiring its aesthetics, then this might be a problem for you. Personally, I’m not a fan of style over substance – but in this case, it feels as though the emptiness is a vital part of the story.
But where the film falls down is where all too many modern films fall down. At two hours, the film is probably half an hour too long, and seems to reach a natural ending before carrying on for some time. While the slow pace of the film is an important part of the style, it still could benefit from some trimming, I think. As little is made explicit in the development of the narrative, it’s hard to believe that the final moments are an essential requirement. It’s not that these scenes are all that helpful to the film.
Refn is certainly an artist – probably one of the best working in cinema at the moment – and a lesser Refn at this time is probably still more interesting than most other films out there. Perhaps my expectations were too high after Only God Forgives – and I certainly found The Neon Demon to be fascinating, gorgeous and provocative. But there is a part of me that thinks it could have been even better. And I still hate the title.
Thanks to Broadway Cinema