The Neon Demon, the latest from Danish director and provocateur Nicholas Winding Refn (Bronson, Drive, Only God Forgives), has incited both praise and scorn from critics and audiences alike. Various conflicting articles have been written about the film’s Cannes premiere. According to Deadline, it received a seventeen-minute standing ovation. Meanwhile, Indiewire reports the movie was greeted with boos and walkouts – “The Neon Demon heckler yelled ‘trash” in Spanish”. It’s been called everything from “an absurd jerk-off Lolita fantasy” to, in a five-star review, a “depraved, delicious nightmare”. I, myself saw the film with three other movie fans. One loathed it and the other two remain unsure of its merit.
The Neon Demon is not a character, but the movie’s setting – L.A. To Refn, it’s bright lights corrupt those who enter. Our window to the world is the sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model, who on the strength of some amateur Grand Guignol style headshots, moves to the city and is recruited by an agent (Christina Hendricks). She is urged to lie about her age, claiming she is nineteen because “eighteen is too on the nose”. Due to her natural beauty, the young woman takes the fashion world by storm, inciting rage from her fellow, more artificially stunning, models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), as well as her make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone). However, Jesse does not realise her trinity of enemies may be more than just jealous women.
Although there are problems with The Neon Demon, I find myself on the positive side of its divisive reception. For one thing, it’s stunning on a stylish, visceral and immersive level. In a review for the A.V Club, A.A. Dowd wrote that “Style doesn’t triumph over substance in The Neon Demon. It devours it”. This is an entirely accurate statement. Between Cliff Martinez’s twinkly but pounding electronic score (imagine John Carpenter meets Todd Terje), Refn’s trademark use of neon and D.P Natasha Braier’s shimmering and hypnotic cinematography (part fairytale/part art-instillation), the film on a sense-level is overwhelming. Martinez, Refn and Braier offer enough to the viewer aesthetically to overlook the script’s simplistic message and hokier elements.
Refn has explored masculinity quite well in some of his earlier work (most notably, toxic masculinity in Pusher II). However, in turning his attention to the opposite gender, he doesn’t bring much depth to the issues raised, despite hiring female playwrights Mary Law and Polly Stenham to write on the script. L.A corrupts young girls, women will do anything to stay beautiful – these are common ideas expressed just as well in the lyrics for Californication by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. However, in the place of an intelligent exploration of femininity, what Law, Refn and Stenham bring to the table is some wickedly dark, gallows humour. These laughs are constant throughout, particularly from Heathcote’s character delivering biting insults masked with a Mean Girls-style over-the-top fake kindness. Also, the movie’s closing scene is hilarious. The trio of writers comically push the limits of what models, whose self-worth depends on their looks and the comments of sleazy male photographers, will do to stay young into the levels of absurdity and horror.
I understand that Refn had intended to make a divisive cult movie entirely for himself (The Neon Demon, despite homages to Dario Argento and David Lynch, feels singular). However, like many cult-films, the numerous plot-threads of The Neon Demon are interesting but they don’t often jell together. For instance, Keanu Reeves (who contributes a lot to the film’s black humour) appears as a sleazy possibly voyeuristic manager at the motel where Jesse is staying. Jesse in a key scene has a premonition, warning her of his incredibly disturbing intent and leaves the motel. Yet this is never mentioned or brought up again. Also, the blend between a satire of the modelling world and a supernatural horror never entirely works because Refn makes the latter element so minimalist. He never establishes precise rules or abilities, which distracts. A film like Paul Schrader’s Cat People perfectly merges its central monsters with an allegory for burgeoning sexuality. Let the Right One in uses vampirism (a life forever young) to discuss loneliness. The Neon Demon’s horror reveal, which is heavily signposted early on and appears in the trailer, feels weirdly ambiguous and oddly left-field, not entirely fitting with the movie’s overall main drama on the cat-walk.
The Neon Demon will split audiences. Some will find it simplistic and under-written. However, some like me will forgive these flaws and marvel in its style and humour.