“Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
Where to start? Yesterday I had the privilege, courtesy of Little White Lies film magazine, to attend a preview screening of Nicolas Winding Refn‘s The Neon Demon, at the very schmancy Soho Hotel with my friend Galia. The film is not released until June 24th in the States and not until early July in the UK. However the film had its international premiere at Cannes last month which led to a substantial amount of reviews. As it stands on June 2nd the film has a rating of 6.8/10 on IMDB and 47% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s looking like The Neon Demon is not going to be the new Drive (7.8/10 and 92% respectively) and there’s one really good reason for that. Refn’s return to LA is with a film that confuses depth with emptiness, mistakes meaning with vapidity and chooses style over substance. The result is an exploitation movie disguised as art, smothered with layers of pretension.
16 year-old Jessie (Elle Fanning) has just moved to Los Angeles. No-one appears to know or care that she is there. Jessie knows she is beautiful, She also knows that beauty is dangerous and that other women would kill for it. After her first photoshoot with amateur photographer and potential love interest Dean (Karl Glusman) Jessie is befriended by makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone). Ruby offers to be the friend Jessie so desperately needs yet Ruby’s other two friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), models only slightly older than Jessie, view Jessie instead as threat and competition rather than a new-found friend. It soon seems like everybody in LA wants a piece of Jessie, her beauty is admired and envied in equal measure – but what will it end up costing her?
What rather infuriates me reading back the plot summary I have just written is that I have made the film sound fun. It isn’t really. Moments of the film are, when the film casts a satirical eye on LA and the modeling industry, but when the film loses focus and Refn seems busy being self-congratulatory about his own brilliance – that’s when you see the film for what it really is. Vapid and empty. I’m sure it would be easy to argue that was intentional, a reflection of the 21st Century’s perception of models and beauty (blah blah yah yah)… but no.
Prior to the film’s screening its director and lead were invited to talk about the film and answer some questions (picture courtesy of Galia). Refn said, and not for the first time in the promo for this film, that ‘I wanted to make a film about the 16-year-old girl inside me’. This resulted in awkward stifled guffaws from an audience who hadn’t yet seen the film. For the first half of the film there are instances where you can see very loosely what he means by this. Jessie’s interactions with casting agents (Christina Hendricks), auteur photographers (Desmond Harrington) and wildly miscast ‘scary’ motel owners (Keanu Reeves) explore the vulnerability of the young in an industry that can be so parasitic and vampiric. It is during this period that the cast really shine. Fanning possessing an ethereality – an otherness that draws yet repels – Malone unnerving as a metaphorical wolf in friends clothing, Heathcote and Lee wonderfully cold as Jessie’s rivals.
It is these more conventional moments that are some of the most engaging. They are intersected with moments that are more exploratory and ‘artistic’ (read: rather deluded and self-indulgent). These moments are overlong, assaulting the senses in a way that should be poetic but instead aggravate. However the soundtrack during the entire film is phenomenal – throbbing away and pumping tension into each scene. And, it must be said, the use of colour and lighting during these moments and the film in it entirety is truly extraordinary. Refn’s color blindness means that his use of colour must alway be in high contrast so he can see it (fact courtesy of Galia). The use of lighting and colour within each of these sequences establish then reflect the tone and ongoings in each sequence. It’s almost as if his use of colour reflects the dichotomy of the human experience…. (sorry I had to try at sounding like a proper film critic!)
It’s the film’s second half that gives into Refn’s epicureanism, resulting in the film becoming even less of a narrative (there wasn’t really one to start with) and more a spiral of ‘well that escalated quickly’. Things get weirder, even weirder, and then weirder yet. It is these moments that are the most problematic. I like weird. I am weird. But I need my weirdness in cinema to be purposeful. I don’t need to see a character deepthroating a knife without purpose nor a character performing necrophilia on a dead model again without purpose. Don’t even get me started on the shower sequence. I’m not the only one of the audience of about 50 of us who felt this way. The gasps and intensity of audience focus hugely shifted at this point, with the grosequeties accompanied by laughs of disbelief instead of the intended wonder.
These scenes have resulted in extreme horror from The Daily Mail (quelle surprise) with headlines such as “Coming soon to a cinema near you: Grim film featuring murder, cannibalism and lesbian NECROPHILIA that even shocked Cannes is now set for British screens” and “Has cinema ever been so depraved and the censors so amoral? CLARE FOGES on the extreme violence, cannibalism and lesbian necrophilia in new film The Neon Demon” These headlines are ridiculous for two reason. 1) I’m sure anyone who has seen a solid amount of film could name you films more graphic than this one. 2) Such headlines would give its pretentious twonk of a director an egotistical thrill and further fuel his perception of himself as some sort of revolutionary. He’s not worth it.
The film favours an approach of Message over an actual storyline, choosing to drift between scenes as opposed to following a narrative and having loose outlines as opposed to actual characters. The more extreme moments are so needless they undercut everything that has occurred prior and throw any perception of The Message out of the window. If Refn wanted to criticise the modelling industry these scenes confuse The Message completely. Initially the film relies on the perverse pleasure of being voyeur of the voyeurs (we watch the watchers watching the watched) whilst pointing out the dark side of the industry. Yet once the aforementioned silliness occurs it is is almost like we see the film for what it really is – a mastabororty experiment where Refn gets to sadomasochistically annihilate his inner 16-year-old girl.
There are images and messages galore on offer within The Neon Demon, but the majority of these are like gaudy baubles. Beautiful to look at but totally empty.