Film Reviews

The Neon Demon Nicolas Winding Refn

Rating - 5/10
Nicolas Winding Refn's latest eighties-infected giallo homage is born in The Neon Demon, where the fetishistic director returns to the States from his 2013 film in the seedy underbelly of Bangkok (Only God Forgives) to the equally exploitative glamor of Los Angeles.  It's pitched as a morbid exposé of the fashion industry and competitive world of modeling where young women are metaphorically known to feed on one another's beauty; Refn traverses the boundary to suggest this is literally occurring in uncanny occult ritual.  The film's more intriguing dimension is its darkly satirical, slow-motion examination of beauty and self-worth through its pure white principal naif, Jesse (Elle Fanning). Shame that, for its visually seductive grandeur, it all unfortunately possesses the psychological depth of a music video rather than what may be expected of a 110-minute film that's egoistically stamped with the monogram of its creator. This seems to be confirmed in the end-credits sequence, which is literally a beach clip-show to the tune of Sia, in tribute to Refn's wife, Liv Corfixen.
While new to his crew, Natasha Braier's cinematography of high contrasts assimilates particularly well with the retro aesthetics Larry Smith brought to Only God Forgives.  Refn's thrillers awaken at night in the void of pitch black corridors accentuated by glitz, fluorescent contours, and, in this film, Cliff Martinez's heavy synthwave score that often sounds like he was obsessively playing Suda51's Killer7 (more schizoid avant-garde pulp) while absorbing the themes of Brad Fiedel and Goblin.  These elements instantaneously collide into a playfully sinister (or, perhaps, demonic) mood, which appears to heighten the setting and stakes in the City of Angels, but the intrigue is mostly contained in the moments in-between dialogue, drowned in thick cuts of synthetic bass and twinkling tones.  Elle Fanning's performance is the only subtle aspect in the production that revels in strobe-light shows and ostentatious, often abrasive encounters between fashionistas and unknown forces. Undoubtedly, The Neon Demon is an unsettling, off-kilter cinematic experience that's superficially intoxicating.  But it unashamedly veers down a path of cynical, sexual admonishment amongst its madly malicious twentysomething women rather than one that at least gives gravity to the moon-sized gaze upon the starry-eyed sixteen-year-old, Jesse.
That command of the camera necessitates salvation rather than futility of banal evil.  Interestingly, and initially against cliché, Jesse honestly celebrates her beauty, in a sort of coy, modest manner with photographer boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) until she is continually reinforced in so many ways by the more accomplished industry titans, her fellow models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), as well as clingy, sisterly make-up artist Ruby (a devilish Jena Malone).  Jesse values her natural look, which challenges Gigi's philosophy of achieving aesthetic perfection no matter the cost.  Extreme reactions to the slightest criticisms are obviously a symptom of an ill industry that glorifies an exact ideal of beauty for all women, forcing them to conform in order to at once achieve all-consuming desire and fame (one interpretation of the title).  In response, Jesse confidently observes herself in the film's most lustrous, choreographed sequence on the artifice of the catwalk, faced with an inverted neon triforce mirror that multiplies her reflections.  That simple Georgia girl of the past becomes a creature of unparalleled potential, and the other models cannot have her vanity infiltrating their eternal circle of discontent.  Jesse must be dealt with.
The film's version of revenge, however, is neither subversive nor surprising; it's merely another perverse example of Refn's penchant for hollow shock value. Upon noticing Elle Fanning's likeness to her older sister Dakota, one wonders if the director may have utilized both of them for deeper illustration of beauty and obsession in the brooding, homogeneous landscape rather than for meta-narrative purpose.  Through its various machinations and lures, comparisons to Argento's Suspiria (1977) and Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010) abound.  Refn has himself confessed the approach is a cross between Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974); yet, none of these references quite capture the tone of Refn's creation that's essentially an inferior version of the post-"Euro-sleaze" template Peter Strickland has been explicitly exploring and evolving in his last two feature films.  The Neon Demon is essentially an extended stage for Refn to indulge his cult cinephelia and to flamboyantly parade his prurient desires that are as potentially exploitative as the industry he's attempting to skewer.  Strickland better utilizes Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and last year's The Duke of Burgundy with specificity and regard for psychological mood and utmost emotional sincerity.  Ultimately, The Neon Demon can only be celebrated as certain manicured kitsch without any real moral weight.