When aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will use any means necessary to get what she has. (From Broad Green’s official synopsis)
Nicolas Winding Refn doesn’t make movies for mainstream audiences. He also doesn’t make movies for grindhouse audiences and, following some really awful critical receptions, he doesn’t even make movies for arthouse audiences anymore. In the years following his artsy criminal bio-pic, Bronson (2008), his films have morphed into a series of super-opulent, contemplative, vaporous nightmares. Basically, he makes movies for Nicolas Winding Refn fans, which is why the ‘NWF’ brand/logo that accompanies his latest movie, The Neon Demon, doesn’t seem all that pretentious. It’s a warning label to ward off the viewers that are allergic to pregnant pauses, shock tactics, and dreamy electronic music. Neon Demon is a clear progression of everything people love and hate about these movies, to the point that its title could be interpreted as a description of the director, instead of the film.
Recognizing a lack of feminine points of view in his earlier filmography, Refn set out to make a ‘female-driven’ horror movie. At one point he cited the historical Countess Elizabeth Báthory as an inspiration. This turned out to be something of a spoiler, as Báthory was known for bathing in the blood of young virgins in hopes of absorbing their vitality and beauty. Also recognizing that he probably is not the best person to write for/about women, he invited playwright Polly Stenham and Preacher series story editor Mary Laws to assist him with the feminine aspects of the story. Neon Demon is still very much a NWF film with all of the weaknesses and strengths that his brand implies, but Stenham and Laws’ influence certainly help elevate the woman-to-woman discourse. The value of their contributions are most obvious when the female characters are compared directly to the more prototypical women that appear in Refn’s other films, such as Pusher II’s (2004) junkie teen mother, Pusher III’s (2005) bratty mobster’s daughter, Drive’s (2011) fragile princess, and Only God Forgives’ (2013) Oedipal nightmare. On the whole, these are easily the best female characters in any of Refn’s movies (though I have a soft spot for Kristin Scott Thomas’ Only God Forgives performance), as well as some of the best performances the director has organized since Tom Hardy’s career-defining appearance in Bronson. Even the viewers that find themselves exhausted by Refn’s eccentricities can probably recognize the potency of the performances, especially Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, and Elle Fanning (who was reportedly asked by Refn to rewrite some of the dialogue).
While I do adore many of his films, I’m inclined to sort of agree with some of Refn’s biggest critics when they say these post- Bronson movies are thematically shallow. More accurately, I find movies like Drive and Only God Forgives are thematically routine. In Neon Demon’s case, the movie that the trailers and press materials promised sounded like the heir to other psychological thrillers about the cutthroat nature of performance industries, such as Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue (1997) or Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010). In reality, Neon Demon is closer to the schlocky obviousness of Paul Verhoven’s Showgirls (1997). This low bar is disappointing, but not unusual for Refn, who tends to make new versions of trashy movies (I suspect that the only reason Drive was popular was because it was a new version of movies people actually like, such as Thief and The Driver). What makes Refn’s work interesting isn’t the complexity of his allegories, but that he explores these hackneyed motifs – Freudian mother-son relationships, lone wolves falling in love, and small town girls losing their innocence to fame and narcissism – in the context of his unique visual universe. Specifically, Refn’s infamously long shots, lack of expositional dialogue, and minimal camera movement forces the audience to contemplate what they are seeing. Some viewers find this irritating and others may think it reveals the seams in Refn’s design, but, at its best, it actually reveals the director’s capacity to tell a deeper story within a handful of almost motionless shots.
For example, the opening shots initially appear to be typical lavish Refn-esque spectacle. But, upon further inspection (or a second viewing), these introductory sequences are lying to the audience. A girl is stretched across a couch with her throat slit, but she isn’t really dead. This preposterously lavish photoshoot isn’t a crime scene or even a professional production – it’s supposedly executed by amateurs for the sake of padding a portfolio. The photographer turns out to be the model’s virtuous pseudo-boyfriend and the only purely good person in the entire movie, yet his face is underlit and he leers at her like a serial killer. Sure, this all might be haphazard screenwriting or perhaps Refn’s fetishism at its most irrational, but one of the movie’s few salient themes is Jesse’s manufactured persona. She is an utterly mysterious figure that is encouraged to lie by the industry people around her. We learn nothing ‘real’ about her backstory and are left to wonder if she becomes a bad person due to her surroundings or if she was pretending to be a good person all along. In turn, the entire first two-thirds of the film are about the joys and dangers of illusions and veiled truths.
Sex and sexual attraction are also presented in gratuitously impenetrable ways. All of the industry men in the movie seem enthralled with Jesse’s beauty on a metaphysical or even religious level, instead of a sexual one. Still, Refn films their attraction as if they pose a physical threat. For example, during Jesse’s first professional gig, the audience is conditioned to believe that an icy photographer (Desmond Harrington) is planning on raping her. He clears the room, orders her to disrobe, then gently rubs her neck and shoulders with golden paint. Women certainly pose a physical threat throughout the movie, but scenes like this one reiterate that objectification – not sex – is the immediate danger of the business. Not to say that the frightening aspects of sex don’t have their place in the film, but Keanu Reeves’ character, who feels like an afterthought, anyway, is the only physical male threat to her well-being (perhaps he and the motel he runs represent the cruelty of the ‘real-world,’ in which Jesse’s growing vanity doesn’t really matter). His threat is ultimately pushed aside by the increasingly obsessive specter of Jesse’s only real friend, Ruby (Jena Malone). I can’t say I really understand what, if any message was being conveyed by Ruby’s subplot, but her presence is equal parts mournful and mortifying, especially when she engages in the one and only fully-realized sex (and apparently improvised) act in the entire film.
Another, even more visceral way The Neon Demon flips the script on the ‘Hollywood hubris’ archetype is that it literalizes a popular metaphorical threat. We’re always warned that the entertainment industry and upper-crust societies eat innocents/innocence alive, but very few movies actually portray the threat. Furthermore, the sudden introduction of grotesque and graphic elements probably would’ve been the exclusive focus of a conventional film. It doesn’t make structural sense, but something along the lines of a cannibalistic/bloodbath power transfer was promised when Refn announced Countess Báthory was an inspiration. And it is exactly the kind of unpredictability violent act that make Refn’s more esoteric movies so addictive and haunting.
PS: If you are one of those people that enjoyed The Neon Demon, I highly, highly recommend you check out Eckhart Schmidt's The Fan (aka: Trance, 1982), which absolutely must've influenced Refn when he made this film. It was semi-recently released on RA Blu-ray from Mondo Macabro.
Every Nicolas Winding Refn movie since Valhalla Rising has been shot using digital HD cameras. Following Drive, Refn’s version of digital cinema sort of became its own hyper-colorful, neon subgenre and the appropriately named The Neon Demon (shot using Arri Alexa cameras) follows suit. This 2.35:1, 1080p transfer is luscious, vivid, and smooth. Basically, the opening titles, which cycle through a kaleidoscope of colors against a highly textured glass surface and end in a shower of glitter, is borderline demo material. But it’s an eclectic movie that presses the HD transfer to its limit all throughout its run-time with blended lights, diffusion effects, and deep-set details. The image isn’t consistently sharp, but that is usually by design. Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier use a lot of wide-angle, anamorphic lenses throughout the film, which distorts the edges of the frame and creates lens flares (according to the commentary, Braier rubbed sweat/grease from her forehead on the lens for a foggy effect). There are some compression issues, such as minor banding and noise effects in the backgrounds of darker shots (the cool night sky and red restaurant booths, in particular) and a slight snowy quality to the most blown-out whites (such as the stark backdrop during Jesse’s ‘golden’ photo shoot). I also caught a bit of enhancement along the darkest edges, but, overall, this is a good representation of the digital projection I saw in theaters.
If I had a dime for every time I heard someone say, “I didn’t like The Neon Demon, but I bought that awesome soundtrack” I’d have, I dunno, at least a dollar. My point is that, once again, Cliff Martinez’ cool synth/vaporwave soundtrack seems to be the one thing everyone loves about a NWF movie (the super-catchy song that was used for the trailers, “Demon Dance,” was composed by Refn’s nephew, Julian Winding). As in the case of Drive and especially Only God Forgives, the music serves such a vital role in Refn’s design, to the point that it seems impossible to separate sound and image throughout the film. To that end, The Neon Demon is meant to be very loud and the clarity of this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is every bit as important as that of a big-budget action movie. The multi-channel arena isn’t as precise or dynamic as you’d hear from a movie with lots of car crashes and shoot outs, but the surround work and deep, throbbing bass are certainly profound. Stark silence also plays a key role during dialogue-heavy scenes (Refn really likes the silence between words), so the lack of buzz and crisp, natural echo effects impress.
Commentary with director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Elle Fanning – I’ve come to dread Nicolas Winding Refn commentary tracks, because I don’t want to have any of his movies explained to me. Fortunately, Refn immediately says he will ‘not be giving away all of the secrets’ and the bulk of the track is devoted to details about the making of the movie, rather than its meaning (I still skipped around anytime it felt like the director was going to delve into the purpose of certain scenes). It’s sort of dry, but the participants are having fun, especially Fanning, who has never done a commentary before.
Behind the Soundtrack of The Neon Demon (5:08, HD) – A quick EPK on the importance of Martinez’ soundtrack, the composer’s process, and the pop & punk influences Refn wanted to infused the music with.
About The Neon Demon (1:12, HD) – Basically an extended trailer that includes snippets of press and red carpet interviews.
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