In 1999, Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl released Models, a docu-realist account of the banality of day-to-day modeling life. It’s a characteristically bleak film from the director but it is punctuated by sparks of humour and warmth, a sense of camaraderie sustained through visits to a nightclub bathroom, where the models chat about men, plastic surgery and their futures in front of the room-length mirror. The presence of the mirror in Seidl’s film triggers self-examination on the part of characters but it also forces something similar in the viewer; the women dissect their own appearances as we bristle at the intimacy of performance and our invasion of their private spaces. Danish adulte terrible Nicolas Winding Refn attempts to tread similar ground in The Neon Demon, his nightmarish fashion thriller-cum-satire. An early scene in his film is also built around mirrors: in one, young model Jesse (Elle Fanning) wipes fake blood from her neck following a particularly overwrought photoshoot, in the other, makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) stares intently at the blonde ingénue behind her. This mirrored sequence, even more than the slow dolly back from the blood-drenched Jesse in the film’s opening shot, is an apt starting point for Refn’s feature, a simplistic and familiar tale of clashing egos and sexuality that places his suffocating visual maximalism front and centre.
To suggest that an industry geared toward the commodification of beauty and youth is vapid isn’t revolutionary but Refn aims for a greater depth of meaning by making his film equally as vapid as its subjects. It’s a critical escape hatch, the film’s two-dimensional characters and rudimentary descent into hyper-violence supposedly justified through its focus on an industry fuelled by style above all. The bold gamble doesn’t come close to paying off—not every film can be Showgirls.
Refn, working with playwrights Mary Laws and Polly Stenham to build the script from his story treatment, moves through a familiar string of plot points transposed from All About Eve and a host of newcomer starlet narratives. Pastiche often suits Refn, from the hyperactive Bronson to the fascinating mesh of genre in Drive, but here it’s less reinvention than restatement.1 Like Only God Forgives, the film is built around set piece sequences and hollowness is a key feature. Unlike the former film, which manages to surprise (and often confound) throughout in its pacing and dreamlike approach to plot beats, The Neon Demon moves from an amusing first third into tedium as the script signposts its twists and turns, only to draw out its runtime with indulgent visual experimentation that does little more than tell us Refn has seen Under the Skin and Suspiria.
This is not to say that some of these sequences don’t land. Early in the film Jesse goes for a test with an in-demand photographer (an impressive Desmond Harrington) and the white backdrop eventually engulfs the room, leaving us with little sense of space and depth. In this vein, the production design from Spring Breakers alum Elliott Hostetter deserves praise. At times, less is more, as in an audition scene where Jesse goes up against Australian model Sarah (Abbey Lee) for a catwalk gig. The use of eyelines and an amusing supporting turn from Alessandro Nivola as a self-important fashion designer set the scene apart from the sloppy melodrama it’s sandwiched between.
Refn told American Cinematographer in July that, with The Neon Demon, he wanted “to make a teenage horror film—a funny, melodramatic horror film—but without a horror film’s DNA.” That doesn’t really come across on screen, the film glancing at the spectre of giallo cinema (though, at times, the lighting is less Suspiria than a poor man’s Gregory Crewdson photo) and relying heavily on the impact of a handful of poorly conceived provocative sequences that make the film’s back half feel like Refn ticking social taboos off his filmmaking bucket list. Some are egregious—the film’s treatment of sexual assault in particular—others are utterly embarrassing—a climactic scene in a morgue the kicker.2
Whilst the film tracks the rise of Fanning’s Jesse and her unconvincing Georgia lilt, it is an ensemble piece, lifted by an electric supporting turn from Jena Malone. Everyone else is mostly serviceable, Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote are asked to do nothing more than be caricatures, though Lee has a few stronger moments towards the end of the film. Keanu Reeves, outside of an odd but funny back-and-forth with Karl Glusman, is wasted here; Christina Hendricks’ one-scene cameo is groan-inducing. At times the performances and the tinny dialogue that accompany them feel like an afterthought, so much does Refn prioritise production. Natasha Braier, who most recently shot The Rover, favours locked off shots and frames-within-frames, but it all amounts to very little in terms of a consistent aesthetic; what stands out are singular, disparate shots. Cliff Martinez’s score once again reigns supreme in Refn’s work, his pulsing, synth-heavy score sounding like Vangelis on pingers.
Refn intends to provoke debate and provide spectacle and, to some extent, he’s succeeded in doing so with The Neon Demon. Some of those discussions will centre on the film’s troubling approach to female sexuality, its lethargic pacing and its overreliance on symbolism as subtext generator. Others will wonder whether we needed a feature-length adaptation of his Blake Lively-starring Gucci ad from 2012. The Neon Demon is the product of an unchecked ego and unchecked vision, unable to prevent a creeping sense of boredom from upstaging the pretty lights.
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