“It’s not a just image, it’s just an image.”
I get the sense that Nicolas Winding Refn, the pornographer of hipster cinema, read Godard and took self-reflexivity as a blank cheque to realize his unfiltered vision. No image is off limits to Refn, no relationship sacred and no taboo impenetrable. His frames are canvases of surrealist fetishes, painting with oil-based blood and transforming his characters into Freudian still lifes. Refn is a filmmaker who would rather pose his characters than explore them, which is the perfect sensibility for The Neon Demon, a would-be vampire movie set against the shallow fashion industry in Los Angeles. His actors have always been more models and less characters: oriented, staged, lit and cast for maximum visual pleasure. A fashion designer says, “beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” and Refn is taking this philosophy to a point beyond the boundaries of what can be constituted as good taste.
Echoing Showgirls, The Neon Demon follows an outsider learning to navigate the sinful cesspool, either adopting its way of life or being swelled-up by its maelstrom. Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles and stays alone in a decrepit motel outside of the city. She is only 16-years-old but openly says that her only talent and way to live is to sell her image. She approaches a modeling agency that accepts her enthusiastically. Unlike so many girls in the industry, she hasn’t been tucked, cut or perfected in a lab. She is a fantasy of authenticity that designers and photographers crave. A make-up artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), introduces Jesse to her jealous model friends who plan to devour her—in every sense.
Even more so than Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon is unconcerned with plot. Instead, it uses the bare-bones narrative as a means to craft images, not tell a story with complex characters. Everything has been reduced to its archetype—naked in front of us. The stylish director dives into a world of style, incorporating blinding lights, architectural excess and luscious designer clothing into a brand of cinema that is singularly Refn’s. The Neon Demon is a feature length advertisement for the director’s cinema, a film so exuberant it intentionally becomes a deconstruction of itself. The Neon Demon offers all of the “problematic” pleasures of his oeuvre, provides you with the space to enjoy it, but ultimately leaves you cold, empty and reflecting on why you may have had such a good time.
The film is dressed in saturated reds and moves to propulsive edits. An electronic score from Cliff Martinez adds a kinetic, synth texture. Each image is hyper-HDR, glowing and strobing with color, which, divorced from content, feels sinful on its own. The Neon Demon has a synthetic kind of beauty, as though each frame were perfected by a cinematic plastic surgeon. The mathematical approach to form takes “cool-ness” to a transcendent and deranged level. Some of the stylistic flourishes are an orgy of juxtaposed color and light: a cut from a dark hotel room to a blank white that is a photographer’s background, a light source becomes a scene’s focus, and the heavenly glow from the lights in an aerobics performance is a divine calling. In the age of Photoshop and Instagram filters, Refn knows—and has helped shaped—what is sexy. He imitates this sensibility, aligning it with our hyper-consumption of images and our absurd expectations for the female body.
One of the models asks Jesse if she is “food or sex.” Is she an objectified image of her body or someone to be literally devoured by the industry’s and society’s superficiality? Sometimes Refn seems to be going too far, like a voyeuristic shot of naked women in the shower as they scrub off blood, but without the fantasy there is no realization. Without going past what is acceptable, satisfying our id’s desires, we might not reflect on materialism and our own participation in its illusion.
But there is a distance to this film, cracks in the fantasy, and an awareness of itself as just an image. Refn parallels the fashion industry with the aesthetics of the film. He makes you aware of violent, hetero-male decadence, rather than simply indulging in it. “NWR,” is stained to the screen during the opening credits; it is the designer label for the film itself. During a fashion show, Jesse is in a prism with two mirrors on either side of her. She stares at her own image, enchanted by it. She kisses herself through the refracted reflection, illuminated by a sensual, red chiaroscuro. Playing out the director’s fantasy to us, this is a sequence of unsatisfactory masturbation. Similarly, later in the film, Ruby has necrophilic sex while imagining Jesse. Fantasies are empty vessels, an image in our mind that bears no resemblance to reality.
The Neon Demon is just a collection of images, which at times can verge on video art—aesthetically overwhelming, gleefully amoral and cunningly realized. It makes pornography out of the promises of fame, beauty and glamor. We either devour The Neon Demon then vomit it, vomit it then eat it, or have so much trouble getting it down that we immediately spit it back out. All of these guttural reactions are appropriate, depending on whether you see Refn’s film as an unjust image or just an image, a dissection of what satisfies our primal desires or surrealist fantasy. Refn is primarily a provocateur, but with The Neon Demon he has perceptively deconstructed what we think is beautiful and showed us its grotesqueness.