Reactions to the work of Danish-born auteur Nicolas Winding Refn have often been largely mixed. At Cannes, 2013’s Only God Forgives received both boos and a standing ovation. Three years on, Refn continues to divide viewers with his latest offering, The Neon Demon. Visually stunning, with a remarkable performance from Elle Fanning as protagonist Jesse, the film appears to be a satirical take on the shallow and superficial nature of the beauty industry. Jesse moves to LA to try and launch her career, becomes the envy of all her peers, and then has this all backfire quite spectacularly. With this information alone, it is easy to approach The Neon Demon already dismissing it, expecting to see something you’ve already seen a few too many times before. Yet another cliche tale of innocence lost; one more fuchsia strip of ink highlighting the toxicity of the mainstream fashion business, a fact that has become so unashamedly apparent it’s nigh on impossible to be unaware of. But, love it or hate it, it’s definitely not like anything you’ve seen before.
As is to be expected from a Refn piece at this point, the cinematography is outstanding. Every shot is expertly composed, artfully rendered, and it’s hard not to get lost in how beautiful the film is just to look at. The use of colour is captivating, a devastating balance of ceruleans and scarlets, which becomes even more impressive considering the director is actually colour-blind. The use of various reds is especially noteworthy, clearly used to draw attention to elements of threat and malice – although, this accomplished colour work does begin to appear a little heavy handed when we consider that the character who emerges as the main antagonist of the piece is named Ruby (Jenna Malone).
While the stylistics of the film are second to none, they are clearly prioritised over its substance. It’s hardly a film from which one can walk away complaining nothing happened, but until we reach the pure diabolical insanity of The Neon Demon’s third act, featuring necrophilia, cannibalism, and one regurgitated eyeball, it’s actually relatively dreary from a narrative perspective. It’s incredibly well acted, but it still remains hard to feel any particular connection to any of the characters onscreen, to cheer when they succeed or weep when they fall. They feel, ironically, like mannequins, non-people reenacting non-events. But maybe that’s the point – in a film critiquing the fetishisation of beauty, it makes sense to prioritise the aesthetic of the work over significance of meaning, just as the fashion industry places image above all else. “Beauty isn’t everything,” remarks one character, “it’s the only thing.”
However, regardless of the potential thematic weight of the film’s monotony, the tedium very rarely lifts until we witness Ruby’s cadaverous violation. The sudden transition from boring to bravado feels rather jarring, as well as most likely turning more than a few theatre-goers stomachs. The symbolism at work in the final third could be unpicked for hours on end, but the launch straight into a morbid parade of sex and violence after just over an hour of relatively mundane occurrences – Jesse at a party, Jesse modelling, Jesse on a date – is not carried off as well as it could have been. Instead of the thrill of the unexpected, it just feels clunky and awkward. The more disturbing elements should perhaps have been interspersed throughout, instead being of concentrated into half an hour of macabre madness.
This is a film which certainly carves a notch in the viewer’s mind, and while I walked out of the cinema questioning the life choices that had led to The Neon Demon‘s doorstep, days later I’m still catching myself thinking about it. It’s certainly not going to be to everybody’s taste, but I’d recommend it to anyone with an appreciation of fine cinematography and even the vaguest interest in the grotesque.
The credits to the film begin with the dedication “For Liv”, a loveheart dotted underneath – referring to Liv Corfixen, Danish actress and documentary filmmaker, and Refn’s wife. There was something incredibly chilling about this addition; looking up at the credit I was certainly pleased I could walk out with a healthy sense of disassociation. Imagine being Liv.