After having audience attendees leave during the screening and boo the film after it ended, to call the Cannes Film Festival run of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon tenuous would be an understatement, especially given the similar reaction to his previous film Only God Forgives. Almost as a point of contrarianism to the attention his film Drive was given, Refn seems to be climbing further and further into the deepest reaches of art house expressionism and The Neon Demon appears to be the culmination of that intended apex. Critics have been chastising his work for being pretentious, masculine, and dull, but this hasn’t faded his process, on the contrary, it has further motivated him to explore a neo-Kubrick cinematic style that is only enjoyable by the hardened cinematic enthusiast, a style which forces the viewer to defragment a puzzle instead of seeking entertainment. While I cannot recommend this work to the majority of cinematic patrons, I will say that this is the masterwork of one of the few true auteurs currently working in the industry. At this point, it is safe to place Refn among Lars Von Trier, Terrence Malik, Gaspar Noe, and Park Chan-Wook. While you may or may not enjoy his work, there is no denying the cinematic brilliance that unfolds with each scene presented in his catalog. The Neon Demon is both the best and the worst film of the year due to this alienating style.
Given his lack of desire to tell a cohesive narrative, Refn clearly cares more about the mise-en-scene and creating an art piece within the shot than carrying on a story line or a bit of dialogue. He then uses this art style to create establishing shots for each character. Instead of hammering the viewer with backstory and long winded conversation about what drives a particular character, he chooses to hang shots on the person and forces the actors to tell the story through their eyes. These long take shots are slowed to a crawl and are usually tightly shot around the expression and feature that Refn wants you to take note of. This trance inducing style of filming has been elevated to extreme proportions with the help of cinematographer Natasha Braier who has already established a well-known style behind the lens. The two make the perfect pair as Refn’s style has never been so lucid and rich with texture.
In the film, Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles following the death of her parents. Sixteen-years-old and alone, she pursues a modeling career that quickly launches into the trajectory of a top star in the industry. On her way to the top, she encounters two models (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote) and a makeup designer (Jena Malone) that bring her into their collective. Personalities collide as Jesse advances through the modeling world at a record pace, never quite sure who is friend or foe, and Refn clearly wants to keep you guessing until the end credits role.
The collective of models share similarities to the ballet school in Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Jealousy, sex, and corruption are themes that drive both films. There is also no denying the retina-frying use of color which is similar to Argento’s finest work. Blues and reds accent the emotions that pulsate throughout the film as they represent the various incarnations of Jesse that we are seeing. The Kubrickian use of shapes and lines is also an eye-catching visual theme that permeates throughout the scenes involving change, acceptance, and, as we should be accustomed to with Refn’s work, violence. The further element of occult and witchcraft is another shared similarity, although I don’t think the intention of this film was to copy and homage Argento, more of a coincidence. In fact, I see far more Gaspar Noe and Lars von Trier in this work than that of any particular horror director. This isn’t simple horror, it is high-art horror.
Ruby, played by Jena Malone, hides her darker ambitions through an altruistic persona. Although upon paying closer attention one can see that she is introduced in an outfit that is almost as demonic as she truly is. The black attire with a deep red tie makes her seem unsettling on an unconscious level. We know she is a savior or friend to Jesse, but we aren’t sure which. This is where Refn and Natasha Braier come in and give us visual cues that become less subtle as the film progresses. Most of the other characters wear their evil or perhaps their shallow qualities on the outside. With each new character introduced, Jesse becomes more and more exposed to the vein nature of the industry and the individual evils that surround her, of course, she is beginning to accept these concepts for herself as she discovers them amongst her peers.
Although there is a script, written by Mary Laws, Polly Stenham, and Nicolas Winding Refn, the strength of the film lies in the visual journey that Refn drags you through. The plot is thin and the narrative is timed in odd ways that feel more rhythmic than natural but the concepts and themes that are shared are astounding to behold. While most people will have a hard time with the themes-over-plot narrative, The Neon Demon takes ease at being one of the most visually arresting films of the year.