The Current Debate: Seeing and Believing in "The Neon Demon"

Image is narrative in the new film from Nicolas Winding Refn.
Jacob Paul

Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film, The Neon Demon, has earned both pans and raves, which has started to seem like the inevitable critical response to a new film from Refn—part of the promise that it delivers on, if you will. And, as Justin Chang notes at the Los Angeles Times, if nothing else, The Neon Demon very much delivers on the promise of being a Refn film:

Even if you were to somehow miss the elegant “NWR” monogram in the opening credits, you would be safe in assuming that Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film is a self-indulgent exercise in style. But what self-indulgence, and what style! A surreal urban fairy tale, “The Neon Demon” unfolds in a murderously debauched corner of the Los Angeles fashion industry, one prowled by predatory beasts, silky-smooth operators and gorgeous blonde vampires on stiletto heels. Languorously paced and literally dressed to kill, the movie is a corrosive attack on beauty — or at least our soulless, corporatized definition of the term — but it is also, above all else, a hypnotically beautiful object.

It isn’t completely without a conventional narrative, even if it’s sparse: the film follows a 16-year-old named Jesse (Elle Fanning), newly arrived in L.A. from Georgia, as she sets out to become a model. She forms a bond with a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone), and begins to navigate a rivalry with two of Ruby’s other model-friends. I could go on, but the plot probably isn’t the point, as Owen Gleiberman writes at Variety:

Refn treats these characters not as people but as pop objects, and what he builds around them isn’t a suspense film so much as an anything-goes dream play. He sucks up influences like an aesthetic vacuum cleaner — not just Lynch and Kubrick (his two most obvious wanna-be gods) but Dario Argento, the David Cronenberg of “Crash,” and even Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona.” There’s a sequence set at a nightclub that features a neon triangle composed of three smaller triangles, and a duplicated image of three Jesses (one of whom kisses herself), and it may inspire two thoughts at once: “Wow, that’s pretty cool!” and “WTF is going on?”

From a certain, possibly literal-minded perspective, “WTF is going on” is not that complicated: Jesse’s encounter with herself in the mirror sequence represents her blooming narcissism. Yet attempting to decode the film based on its devices and references might not leave you wowed, as it certainly doesn’t Nick Pinkerton at Reverse Shot:

In a moment when pop movies are divided between a numbing “Based on a True Story” naturalism and sword-and-sandal or superhero fantasy, it’s all to the good that someone with Refn’s pull is trying to connect these various auteur traditions which find a rapprochement between stylization and realism. Having said this, there’s no comparison that The Neon Demon tempts which Refn doesn’t come off the worse for. The presence of Reeves is a silly stunt compared to the dense, allusive thicket of allusions that is the Lost Highway cast list. Refn is a prim provocateur next to the likes of Anger and Harrington, who worked from an experience of genuine sexual outlawry. As for Kubrick, well—along with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, The Neon Demon may be said to belong to the burgeoning subgenre of Kubrickian kitsch. Though Refn’s index of culled cinematic references are in order and unimpeachable, he himself remains out-of-focus, remote. We have some idea of what the term Lynchian entails, but what would it mean to call a film “Refn-esque”?

Pinkerton suggests that what it might mean—“an inviolable belief in The Shot, using behind-glass framings as his basic cinematic unit, while sparing little consideration for how one image leads into the other”—amounts to an exercise in imperious image-making that leaves the viewer cold. Adam Woodward, writing at Little White Lies, argues the other way:

Is it simply the case that Refn can’t resist indulging his ego while administering shots of cheap titillation? It’s true he has a habit of deploying sexually-charged flash grenades that seem designed, first and foremost, to stun you into submission. It’s also true that he gets a kick out of eliciting precisely this reaction – say by having his protagonist beat another man to mulch in the close confines of an elevator, or another crawl into the open belly of his freshly disemboweled mother. But it would be remiss to reject The Neon Demon as a work of empty provocation. Because as you start to digest the visceral images streaming forth from Refn’s subconscious onto the screen, whether you’re aroused or repulsed (and these responses are by no means mutually exclusive), there’s never the sense that he is out purely to satisfy his own impulses.

Pinkerton and Woodward agree that “the image” is paramount to The Neon Demon, but they disagree about its effectiveness: Pinkerton sees a mostly-unsuccessful exercise in allusion, devoid of the filmmaker’s personality, while Woodward finds value in the reactions the images might prompt. On the surface, both of these arguments seem to be about the audience, and it’s tempting to write-off their differences to matters of taste. But that’s a cop-out: it would reduce the film’s images to what they show, rather than what they mean. On that note, I find Jessica Kiang’s review at The Playlist useful:

For every memorable image or swoony sequence that is even nominally justified by the story, there are two or three that aren’t: wildcats in motel rooms, flashing triangular installations, and endless closeups of Elle Fanning’s changeable, slightly asymmetrical face. One moment kewpie-doll cute, the next angular and insolent, Refn’s constant return to Fanning’s face is an essay in itself, about the beholder and the beheld, and about how very wrong Keats was in suggesting an equivalence between beauty and truth.

The underlying assumption here—and it’s correct, I think—is that the camera is telling a more complex story than the narrative of Jesse’s arrival in L.A. This is not image-as-narrative in the sense of visual storytelling devices: the image’s existence is a narrative in itself. The Neon Demon doesn’t seem to care about Jesse, particularly: it cares about how the camera looks at Jesse, how we look at Jesse. That’s an abstract idea, to be sure, but it’s also rather philosophical. Perhaps the film ends on a shot of a mostly-barren landscape not (only) because it’s contrarian, but because that’s where we’ve been the whole time—everything we’ve seen is, after all, imaginary. What truth is there in that?

The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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