As the auditorium lights fade and Cliff Martinez’s euphoric, oppressive score ushers in the title sequence for Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon we are presented with the director’s own monogram under the title. It’s the first sign of what’s to come.
The Neon Demon is a divisive film, horrifying and beautiful to look at; an oft-told tale pushed to uncomfortable extremes. As in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, when we hop the white picket fences and are pushed deep beneath the reference quality green grass to the oozing, violent soil beneath, Refn pushes his gaze deep into the City of Angels, and the demons therein, trailing their shadows in the blistering sunlight.
The director finds fertile ground in this uncompromising examination of the sharp edges of love in the infinite city. The monogram is entirely appropriate as Refn’s latest film is very much his signature feature thus far.
The Neon Demon follows the honed, commercial success of Drive and the stubbonly opaque Only God Forgives, films suffused with a cold, alienating distance from reality. It offers up a very familiar story (young girl heads to LA to make it in the world of fashion – is consumed) swamped in a hyper-stylised gloss. Many who have decried the film have pointed to this wash of aesthetic assault, arguing that it drowns in it, yet Refn gives us moments to break the surface, to believe that this road to Hell is not one way. Those of us who enjoy the director’s work have no illusions about where we’re heading.
Elle Fanning’s wannabe supermodel Jessie appears on the LA scene, all china-doll face and endearing self-doubt, looking for acceptance, then adoration. As with Drive and Only God Forgives the players in this drama are caught under a particularly focused spotlight. In cities filled with millions the absence of crowds is deliberately unsettling.
Jessie’s first fashion shoot is on a closed set, there are no spectators during her metamorphic runway moment, her first glimpse of LA is from high in the hills, with the glittering carpet of the city far stretching far, far away. For much of this film Jessie is alone, with only us to watch on in horror.
Karl Glusman’s uncertain dreamer Dean (a fledgling photographer, repulsed by what his viewfinder shows him) is the only angel in the city. He watches Jessie’s star ascend, but is soon cast out of a well-drawn Hellish circle by a gaggle of demons, including Jessie – just as she starts to catch fire.
Kevin Kolsch’s 2014 horror Starry Eyes traveled a similar path, and features a comparable transformation. The tragic element of Kolsch’s film, absent from Refn’s film, is that Alexandra Essoe’s fame-hungry Sarah seemed to be pulled by an oblique undertow before learning the horrible truth of her new reality. Elle Fanning’s Jessie may look like she’s just ridden the hay cart out of Nowheresville, USA but she buries herself deep into the ground and gives herself up to darkness willingly.
The muddy screenwriting is where most of the criticisms have sprung from. It’s true that the film rattles along with moments of narrative dissonance, and some of those moments are shocking to behold (mortuary, bathtub), but it is far from being the cinematic equivalent of flicking through a self-important fashion magazine. There is an argument that the film is ultimately misogynistic, but it is far more simple than that – it hates everybody equally.
The film looks beautiful, and asks a lot of its audience to keep up, to give itself over to the fall we are witnessing. We are not complicit in Jessie’s fall, we do not feel the fragility, nor the weight of the changes as we did in Black Swan. It is an almost religious transformation. There is not stopping it. The horror Refn spends the first half of the film hinting at spews out as Jessie falls in love with her reflection, sealing the deal with a kiss.
In an eye-popping scene the full horror is revealed, and the denouement feels a dark extension of everything which has come before. Hidden among the melodrama and the fairy tales is the horror within; wildcats pouncing onto motel beds, wolves barely held behind unlocked doors, the glare of the demons in the mirror. The distance is deliberate, necessary in fact, for the film to work as well as it does.
High art does not necessarily mean good art. However a concentrated, often oppressive cinematic atmosphere can lull you into a dream state the like of which no other medium can sustain. Refn’s Neon Demon is an assault on the senses as we are, like Jessie, led deeper into the sun-blasted shadows of Los Angeles, to its ultimate, and fiery end.
The Neon Demon is out in UK cinemas today.
The Neon Demon Movie Image Gallery