Is Nicolas Winding Refn the sleaziest filmmaker alive? After criticism that his testosterone fuelled revenge fantasies were misogynist reached fever pitch with his divisive 2013 movie Only God Forgives, he made the conscious decision to team up with playwrights Mary Laws and Polly Stenham to make a film with a predominantly female cast set in the fashion industry. The end result isn’t a rallying feminist cry so much as it is an intoxicatingly stylish slap across the face of good taste and moral decency. It is as trashy (and devilishly enjoyable) as a slow-paced arthouse film is possible to be.
Jessie (Elle Fanning) is introduced lying on a sofa, blood dripping down her body. She’s a child model who’s just turned 16 and moved to L.A in search of work in the industry – and her debut photoshoot is a bloodbath, which any viewer will be able to tell you immediately is foreshadowing events later on. She quickly gets snapped up by an agency, befriends a make-up artist (Jena Malone) and angers every model in the industry with her natural, Aryan beauty. They have spent thousands of dollars on surgery to obtain her looks, but she was just born that way. Jessie is completely innocent, initially unaware of the corrupting power of her beauty. But in this industry, that doesn’t last for long.
Although far from being Refn’s best work, The Neon Demon does contain some of the best visuals of his entire career. In many of the fashion photography sequences, the visuals become hallucinatory and for prolonged periods of time, appear to abstract the entire film with quick, bright flashes of multi-coloured neon that seem designed to trigger epileptic fits. It is like the fashion shoots are a gateway to a different dimension, where the sweet innocence of the main character is corrupted by an awakening neon demon within – all signified through weird, yet gorgeous imagery. Refn is frequently criticised for making stylish films that are emotionally empty, a trend that is continued here; but when it looks this stunning, this capital-C cinematic, that isn’t exactly a problem.
With the help of cinematographer Natasha Braier, he helps turn a straightforward fashion industry satire into something much weirder, with plenty of visual subtext lurking away in the foregrounds of each fashion shoot scene. Refn famously said that even he didn’t understand the meaning of his previous film (even though he wrote and directed it), so any visual choices are likely unconscious decisions, chosen to suit his visual style.
But the recurring visual motif of triangular structures appearing at the end of the runway is very clearly an allegory for the illuminati; of becoming successful in the industry and being able to join some prestigious elite that remains alien to the other runway models, lower down on the food chain.
Just because it has no emotional heft doesn’t mean the cast aren’t committed. In fact, by throwing themselves head first into Refn’s controversial vision, the entire ensemble can only be described as brave. Elle Fanning is fantastic in the lead role, with echoes of Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive as she makes the leap from innocent child model to a femme fatale in full command of her sexuality.
But that is nothing compared to the controlled chaos delivered by Jena Malone as her make-up artist and the group of aspiring models in their social circle- pitched somewhere between Mean Girls and the satanic female horror of Antichrist (complete with extreme, misogynistic consequences), they are truly ghastly creations who the cast seem to be loving getting the opportunity to play. No other fashion industry movie will rival The Neon Demon in terms of portraying the moral ugliness of beautiful people in such a nihilistic manner.
The only downsides in the ensemble are brief supporting turns from Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks. Both are game performers, but they both have roles vital to the narrative that feel oddly under utilised. But then again, this isn’t a movie where story is important; Refn prioritises trippy visuals and a pulsating Cliff Martinez score that sounds like what you’d hear at an East German heroin den at 5am. It is set in the fashion industry, so of course style is preferred over substance.
Like Refn’s previous film, the title is pretty irrelevant to the film itself – it just sounds cool as shit, vague enough to sound like we are meant to interpret into the narrative. In titling his films in this way, he firmly establishes himself in the same league as the trashy Italian Giallo genre from the 70’s; the titles of films in that genre were often irrelevant to the content, chosen only as they undeniably sounded awesome. Their preference for excessive, unpredictable violence and stylisation over substance are all influences on Refn’s work too- even in this, his proclaimed feminist film.
The Neon Demon is trashy in a way that is more suited to the arthouse than mainstream movie goers. As well as resembling the stylised violence of the aforementioned giallo directors, including Dario Argento, it has plenty of the jet-black dark comedy and clinical body horror of David Cronenberg. Troubling themes, from necrophilia to paedophilia, rape and cannibalism, all feature here, discussed in flat, affectless monotone by the characters. They are so cold and cut off in their pursuit of pure beauty, they are unfazed by the ugliness occurring all around them and take it at face value.
This indifferent portrayal of the ugly side of sexuality is reminiscent of Cronenberg’s 1996 film Crash, about a weird cult of people turned on by fatal car accidents. In that film, Cronenberg made the decision to film all offending sequences with a heightened sexuality to represent their deadly kink in an honest way. To this day, it is still banned in Westminster. Here, Refn stylish shoots a necrophilia sequence not as horror, but as a passionate love fantasy (it is marginally more tasteful than it sounds). Naturally, The Daily Mail urged for it to be banned, without even seeing the finished product.
The Neon Demon is not a film for everyone. It is slow paced, contains more than its fair share of distressing thematic content and is thoroughly morally ugly in spite of a beautiful cast and gorgeous cinematography. But as a distinctive work of art from a polarising filmmaker, it is undeniably the arthouse treat of the summer.