A diamond in a sea of glass: The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon (2016)

Stunning, hypnotic and intoxicating, The Neon Demon is, however, a mess without structure, devoid of meaning and with no idea how to end

The Neon Demon


Di­rect­ed by Nico­las Wind­ing Refn. Screen­play by Nico­las Wind­ing Refn, Mary Laws and Pol­ly Sten­ham. Sto­ry by Nico­las Wind­ing Refn. Star­ring Elle Fan­ning, Karl Glus­man, Jena Mal­one, Bel­la Heath­cote, Abbey Lee, Christi­na Hen­dricks, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Har­ring­ton and Alessan­dro Nivola.

I’m not a bit sur­prised to know from an in­ter­view with Elle Fan­ning that The Neon De­mon was shot in chrono­log­i­cal or­der and parts of it, in­clud­ing the end­ing, were cre­at­ed and im­pro­vised on set. I don’t know how much of it was made up as it went along but that sounds very rea­son­able con­sid­er­ing the mess with­out struc­ture that it turned out to be and how it de­rails into com­plete lu­na­cy and style over sub­stance, de­void of mean­ing and with no idea how to end. Which ex­plains all the boo­ing and jeer­ing that it re­ceived at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val af­ter the press show­ing. And I say this as some­one who did like (very much, in fact) Refn’s pre­vi­ous film, Only God For­gives, which was also booed at the same fes­ti­val three years be­fore.

Not that the movie doesn’t have its qual­i­ties. Vi­su­al­ly, it is some­times stun­ning, hyp­not­ic and in­tox­i­cat­ing like a dream — or a night­mare, suf­fused with strobe and neon lights, in­tense col­ors and pul­sat­ing elec­tron­ic mu­sic. If Dario Ar­gen­to had made Val­ley of the Dolls (1967), it would prob­a­bly look like this. Cen­tered on a six­teen-year-old as­pir­ing mod­el named Jesse (Fan­ning) who has just moved to Los An­ge­les, it in­tro­duces us to a scary but tit­il­lat­ing side of the fash­ion world, where plas­tic surgery is con­sid­ered as es­sen­tial as tooth brush­ing and where Jesse meets some beau­ty-ob­sessed mod­els who be­come dan­ger­ous­ly hos­tile to­wards her. Soon enough, she be­gins to re­al­ize the ex­tent of her own beau­ty (“I don’t want to be like them. They want to be like me”) and how that strange uni­verse is up to de­vour her along with her char­ac­ter.

As I said, The Neon De­mon looks stun­ning, even if Natasha Braier’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy ex­ag­ger­ates in its overuse of lens flares all over the place, like a fu­tur­is­tic piece. The mise-en-scène is also pre­ten­tious, with the ac­tress­es ap­pear­ing in pos­es and more pos­es like ob­jects whose sole func­tion seems to be that of help­ing com­pose the movie’s gor­geous pro­duc­tion de­sign in­stead of de fact ex­press­ing some­thing. If this is Refn’s way of ex­pos­ing how vac­u­ous this whole uni­verse is, the least he could do is de­vel­op its char­ac­ters as more than life­less man­nequins on the screen. What we are left with is a lot of style and very lit­tle sub­stance, even if the film can be as ab­sorb­ing with its at­mos­phere as all of the beau­ty it shows us.

But let’s not over­look one im­por­tant el­e­ment, which is how the film wants to con­vince us that Elle Fan­ning is too beau­ti­ful to be real. Not that this is a prob­lem per se, she does have a rav­ish­ing, ra­di­ant face and sell us with her at­ti­tude this spe­cial al­lur­ing qual­i­ty that could in­deed leave a lot of peo­ple speech­less — like in a scene where a fash­ion de­sign­er (Alessan­dro Nivola) is en­tranced when he sees her at a cast­ing call. But to say that she is so much of a god­dess that even her moth­er used to call her “dan­ger­ous” — and to go as far as to com­pare her to the sun in the mid­dle of win­ter — is per­haps a bit too much. If the role was played by some­one like Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, I would un­der­stand it. Be­ing Elle Fan­ning, I find it not that easy to buy.

Not that this is so im­por­tant any­way. In a movie this full of flaws, it doesn’t ac­tu­al­ly mat­ter. Plot-wise, The Neon De­mon is a mess. Char­ac­ters ap­pear and dis­ap­pear just like that, and sub­plots are dis­card­ed with­out any ex­pla­na­tion. For in­stance, what is the na­ture of the mys­te­ri­ous per­son who tries to break into Jesse’s mo­tel room? And who should he/she be? Does the dream scene that pre­cedes this mo­ment have any­thing to do with it, like a pre­mo­ni­tion? And what be­comes of Jesse’s friend Dean (Karl Glus­man)? I don’t even want to talk about how in the movie’s most cli­mac­tic scene it goes from day to night in about less than a minute.

And if I men­tion all that it fails to ac­com­plish, I can’t leave out the fact that Jesse is so poor­ly de­vel­oped as a char­ac­ter to the point that her trans­for­ma­tion into ful­ly self-ab­sorbed feels too forced and out of the blue, only il­lus­trat­ed by a strange neon sym­bol that changes from blue to red and leaves her en­am­ored with her own re­flec­tion. It’s sup­posed to be styl­ish and daz­zling; I get that. But it is also ar­ti­fi­cial and a cheap move to make us ac­cept that she would quick­ly em­brace nar­cis­sism and be­come a shal­low man­nequin like the women around her.

If all of that makes The Neon De­mon frus­trat­ing­ly va­pid, what can be said then about Refn’s sil­ly at­tempt to shock us? He has done that be­fore, yes — and with much bet­ter re­sults — but now the way he tries to turn his nar­ra­tive into a hor­ror movie is of ex­treme bad taste, in­clud­ing a grotesque scene of necrophil­ia that is more gra­tu­itous than any­thing else. The cli­max is so sick­en­ing that it would prob­a­bly leave Eliz­a­beth Bátho­ry sex­u­al­ly aroused. I mean, what can pos­si­bly be said about a scene in which we see a woman gush out a riv­er of blood from be­tween her legs? I couldn’t even be­gin to con­tem­plate a mean­ing for that.

Which is the main is­sue I had with this film, the fact that Refn wants to cre­ate some­thing aes­thet­i­cal­ly gor­geous but has no idea what he wants to say in the first place or how to end it. Does he mean that in this su­per­fi­cial world and city all you can find is peo­ple try­ing to de­vour each oth­er? And throw each oth­er up? What the hell is that ugly last scene about? If his goal is to pro­voke us — which pret­ty much seems to be the case — he cer­tain­ly did it. I’m only afraid that this was not the best way to achieve that and a lot of peo­ple will just hate him for it.

June 27, 2016


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