The Neon Demon (2016)
In a summer starved of intellectual or pure sensational bouquets The Neon Demon sizzles in summer roasted multiplexes like a undercooked kobe steak, rarefied, ravishing and nausea inducing in its blood streaked beauty. Never a stranger to controversy Nicholas Winding Refn’s follow-up to his universally maligned Only God Forgives has proved equally divisive, with accusations of another pretentious sequencing of imperious imagery obscuring an ideological inequity, an absence of any intellectual rigor or statements which have attached themselves limpet like to this pungent period of his career. A number of amusing similes have graced the film, with the frequent Kubrick and Lynch associations and influences dominating the discourse, my favourite pull-quote has been ‘It’s The Company Of Wolves crossed with Showgirls’ so just to throw my metaphoric hat into the ring I’ll frame The Neon Demon as Bret Easton Ellis fever dream remake of Suspiria . It’s a film which unapologetically embraces its abstract allusions, drilling into a shared psyche of a tormented society that idolizes the temporary over permanence, a disembowelling of the Hollywood dream factory that alongside Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars is as poisonous a chalice as it was during the heyday of the rigid Studio system. Like many a European auteur that presaged him Refn is simultaneously revolted and seduced by the glittering urban canyons of Los Angeles and its industries of image, crashing his titanic metaphor of the fashion industry into the iceberg of sleek, polished and sterlised iconography, the film is gorgeous and gluttonous with a symbiotic sneer against the very constructs that have packaged and sold the film all over the globe.
The Neon Demon has a Grimm’s fairy tale veneer of an adolescent entering a very adult world, with the waiflike Jesse (Elle Fanning) devoured by the fashion industry, pregnant with predators lurking around every chrome and steel laminated corner. After shooting a photospread with an aspiring photographer and signing to an elite modelling agency Jesse is befriended by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who seems to recognize Elle’s potentially naïve fragility given her past experiences in Tinseltown. Her two friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee, hot off last years Mad Max revisit) have already climbed the initial rungs of the industry, yet are already struggling to secure new assignments being too mature for photographers at the spritely age of 22. Their jealousy and anger is intensified as Elle’s star accelerates in the ascendant, with the influential decision makers in the industry literally dumbfounded by her beauty in a clear embrace of of semiotic satire. This my friends is a movie, a statement of intent which most of my recent screenings have avoided, more than just an entertainment every image and scene has a purpose, a binding construction and effort, however maligned its disturbing necrotic core. For a director most celebrated and criticized for exploring notions of masculinity and male aggression it’s curious that this is Refn’s first female fronted tale, with the men relegated to mere practitioners of gaze and adoration, if not outright misogynistic threat in the form of a strangely miscast Keanu Reeves as Jesse’s threatening motel manager.
That’s not to say the women are given an easy break, when they are not being stalked or treated as flesh and bone commodities they are preying on each other, feasting on a narcissistic orgy of self interested spite. It used to be that narraccism was a sin and modesty a virtue but look around at the preponderance of social media, personal accounts divulging the most personal intricacies of their hosts life or self satisfied and opinionated blog writers (Erm?), and we’re in a new gilded age of selfish symbolism, an area that Refn mines at its ultimate apogee – the fashion and visual culture industries. He understands that moving images need sound to seduce the senses so the appointment of probably the most liquid composers currently at work is a stroke of brilliance, alongside the incredible orchestrations for Soderbergh’s The Knick Cliff Martinez outdoes himself with another seething sonic snake, coiling and squeezing the venom out of Refn’s exquisitely engineered visual sequences. The film often slides into total abstraction, a cruel public audition session contorts into a horror movie climax, while Jesse’s catwalk debut melts into pure image and sensation, with a vaguely vaginal symbolism moistening the screen with a strobe-lit starkness. As such this is not a film for everyone and I am unsurprised at the vitriol that predictable elements like the sexualised violence and bludgeoning visual metaphors have attracted, suffice to say if you gravitate to film genres such as lurid hysterical giallos, Under The Skin or even Mullholland Drive then you should find some sustenance here.
As provocative partners you can almost sense Refn giggling in the back of the class with his henchmen Gasper Noe’s sexual inhibition, Tarantino and his indiscriminate machine gunning racial slurs and Von Trier’s gruesome gender politicking, each urging the other to up the ante and stage some new affront to delicate decorum and stirring the pot of cultural outrage. After Noe gave us the worlds first 3D cumshot in last years Love Refn is similarly unafraid to lunge down some very dark alleys, and it was quite refreshing to hear a director on the marketing circuit calmly admitting that he has deliberately sexualised the violence which goes against every possible protocol, Through the squirming narrative that he has written with his two female co-writers mary Laws and Polly Stenham they explore some taboos which I’ll keep cloaked for fear of spoilers, suffice to say the narrative plunges into unexpected areas which holds the attention and remain unpredictable, so after a few solid months of blockbuster modelling it was nice to be surprised with a film which I could not predict the climax. The beauty of whether these are justified has to lie within the gaze of the beholder, I think it was deeply pretentious and lacking in subtlety, two deficits which are overwhelmed by the sheer sense of sensation, sonic and visual sequencing which lingers in the mind far beyond its Vogue afflicted visions. Utterly shameless, sordid and strangely…erm..satisfying is The Neon Demon one of the best film films of the year? Probably not. is it one of the most appropriate and necessary features in these turbulent times? Absolutely….