The Neon Demon
Having conquered my fears and realized that cinema can, in fact, simultaneously be beautiful and depraved, I’ve gone back to my old habits of close-mindedness and decided that the beautiful and depraved The Neon Demon is not beautiful enough to excuse its extensive depravity. Nor is it smart enough to characterize itself as anything but a vapid comment on the fashion world’s own vapidity.
It’s got some huge visual ideas to be sure — think Argento’s Suspiria meets the freewheeling anything-can-happenness of a Jodorowsky helmed vanity project — but the screenplay is more comprised of unfilled Insert Scathing Remark Regarding Materialism Here empty spaces than jabs (or scenes, really) that bring any sort of rise out of us. (Unless that rise is supposed to be embedded in disgust; then The Neon Demon tops Hellraiser in its sheer ability to inflict misery that comes with a couple waves of nausea.)
The film only furthers Nicolas Winding Refn’s status as one of the most polarizing auteurs of his generation. From Drive (2011) to Only God Forgives (2013) has he divided critics and audiences with his mercurial delving into the bloody mixed with the poetic. Not having seen Only God Forgives — only the grapevine’s able to tell me of its sugary masochism — I can confidently state that, while I find Drive to be oftentimes horrific, it’s a film that provokes as much as it intoxicates, all immaculate style backed by a slitheringly cool tone Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978) conveyed slightly better.
But The Neon Demon doesn’t conjure that same sort of admiration, even though my said admiration for Drive also comes with a cringe and a raised eyebrow. The former, crisply photographed as it is, is Valley of the Dolls (1967) minus the semi-compulsively watchable melodrama, Blood and Black Lace (1964) minus the intriguing center. It’s a pretentious plateau of barely threaded together satire that firmly holds the belief that, with enough flash, audiences will be seduced enough by ocular scintillations to excuse the film for saying nothing and going nowhere. Take away the magnificent work of cinematographer Natasha Braier and you have a solid opening paragraph followed by an unrevised first draft that never got written in the first place.
And that’s a disappointment, especially considering just how enigmatically fascinating the first act of The Neon Demon is. Take into account its opening image, which promises us an unconventional masterpiece that never materializes. That image, reminiscent of a particularly provocative V Magazine spread, voyeuristically watches as an impeccably dressed and gussied up pretty young thing lies on an ivory colored sofa, her throat slit and her torso covered in blood. Bsefore we can determine that this is a visual metaphor concerning the public’s hush hush obsession with the destruction of beauty and innocence, we find that all in front of us is an illusion — the girl at the center of the faux bloodbath is actually sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring supermodel starring in the first photoshoot of her career.
Honey blonde, virginal, and optimistic, she moves to Los Angeles on a wing and a prayer; she’s an orphan with nothing but her good looks to rely on. “I can't sing, I can't dance, I can't write. But I'm pretty, and I can make money off pretty,” she sighs to a would-be love interest early on in the film. Naturally, she’s an instantaneous success in the industry — she’s quickly picked up by a ruthless modeling agency and becomes the muse of a top designer (Alessandro Nivola), spurning the jealousy of bitter rivals (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee) and the lust of a heavily relied upon makeup artist (Jena Malone).
But because Refn is all about taking his plot points and characters to extremes never quite seen before, the ending is, unsurprisingly, a gruesome shocker proud of its marrying of violence and sensuality. And that ending, undeniably impactful, would be a hell of a conclusion if we felt there were a storyline to get us to reach that point of catharsis. The Neon Demon doesn’t do much between its bombshell beginning and its crushing closer; it’s comprised of two effective acts strung together by impenetrable metaphors and unintelligible psychological whispers. The deliberation in the dialogue suggests that Refn’s got something dastardly up his sleeve, but the film is less deliciously wicked and more spitefully disturbing. Much as I’d like to recommend the movie based on some of its more inspired components, I’m hesitant, primarily since looking up film stills or exquisitely made GIFs is more pleasing and perhaps more enjoyable an activity than watching The Neon Demon itself.
Basking in two hours worth of ostentatious directorial flair is no way to spend one’s precious time — though few are working in the same ballpark as the inventive and impressively ambitious Refn and though few modern actresses are as thrilling to watch as Elle Fanning (the eighteen-year-old is destined to become a major star, if she isn’t one already), the movie is a repulsive (but sometimes gloriously visually sumptuous) failure of a cultural commentary to be avoided. Moments excite, but there aren’t nearly enough of those moments to warrant any sort of commendation. C-