The Neon Demon seems at first like a film of contradictions – shiny surfaces hiding dark depths, fashion statements masquerading in front of political ones, human impulses bathed in techno beats, the beautiful and the ugly, the innocent and the corrupted, sex and death. Its chief achievement is that it makes these contradictions absolute non-contradictions rather than uneasy bedfellows.
It cries out for dual recognition – we’re meant to recognise Western society in the mirror it holds up, but more importantly recognise that this is the work of Nicolas Winding Refn, his three initials styled bright-fonted in a steep downward incline on a sort of digital embroidered fabric in the film’s opening titles. Here the director’s ego conveniently dovetails with the film’s key theme of regard and self-regard. He’s doing a Kanye – “We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.”
He wasn’t the first to admit it, of course, so he wisely keeps the self-consciousness low-key for the rest of the film. Other than sporting the Refn aesthetic (gloss, shine, blue eyes and blood aplenty, slow tracking shots, pulsing Euro-ish soundtrack), the film doesn’t engage in much meta bullshit, which makes it harder to dismiss – it’s more 1980s than 2010s, interested in subverting surfaces but not in commenting on the nature of the subversion. Refn loves cinema qua cinema, chiefly for its aesthetic power. He likes taking hostages in the name of art. In this film, he has points to make, but – realising deep down that he’s not exactly Plato – he prioritises cinematic spectacle over point-making, and since form matches function deliriously well here, he finally figures out how to graduate from the school of empty-husk prettification. This is likely to be a flash in the pan rather than newfound maturity, but that doesn’t mean The Neon Demon isn’t worth seeing – it is.
Other reviewers have mentioned the influence of Kubrick (this film’s opening scene and slow tracking shots recall A Clockwork Orange), Lynch (fair, though Lynch is usually grimier) and Jodorowsky (the film isn’t logical, and is borne on a current of sometimes obscure human impulses; one scene has a woman lying naked before a moonlit window, gushing blood vaginally and contentedly). Jodorowsky is actually mentioned in the closing credits. I’d add Ken Russell to the mix of predecessors – as expected, it’s gleefully demented, but also surprisingly unafraid of spending several minutes in abstract imagery territory. The landscape poster for the film brings to mind The Day of the Locust’s.
But it is Refn’s movie through and through, and while I’m wary of young auteurs settling self-satisfied into self-carved grooves, its points are made too forcefully, too hellishly, to not leave an impression, despite its persistent indulgence in Grand Guignol. The way the points are made are more interesting than the points themselves, which are trite and/or wrong-headed: a) The coincidence of youth and beauty turns heads; b) Women’s obsession with beauty, encouraged by men, suggests feminism will never succeed; c) Women are savage beneath, and ultimately their own worst enemy; d) “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”. At first I thought the latter conducive to fruitful debate, but quickly came up with too many exceptions for it to hold up.
So head to the Kino to have your senses roundly assaulted by Refn’s use of colour, Natasha Braier’s command of composition and Cliff Martinez’s throbbing synth score; have your hunger for trash sated by the B-movie script (courtesy of Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham); try to take the male gaze in your stride – it’s rare that dream-states, nightmares, are so convincingly unsettling on the big screen. It’s just a movie, after all.