You have to look at The Neon Demon with a post Drive Winding Refn lens. Bronson is too British and Valhalla Rising had middling success, Drive very much solidified the Winding Refn signature that has only heightened in subsequent films. His own personality might have done that is well. From the opening credits, this film is stamped with his name and I mean that literally as the first frames are watermarked “NWR”. This is a movie where he is pushing the limits of his directing style, straight from the title he is pointing out the importance of those iridescent colors that were so prominent in Only God Forgives. He also pushes the boundaries of content presenting a film intent on making you uncomfortable with sexual violence and taboos. To top it all off this is a movie about Hollywood vanity seen through the transformation of a young model as she is glorified by the industry while those around her try to tear her down. I’d consider this the most vain and self indulgent project of Winding Refn as he sees his power and uses it to make his most thematically ambitious and visually masturbatory film yet.
I do not discount a film for being uncomfortable if it serves a purpose and I will say thanks to some female writing credits (screenplay by Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) it is an accurate representation of the fears women can face in the world. Late in the film our lead Jesse (Elle Fanning) monologues that her mother used to call her a dangerous girl and throughout the film she indeed finds herself in perilous situations. There is constant uneasy as Jesse meets the men who could exploit her like the famous photographer who wants a closed test session with her, the designer who believes she’s only worth the outer beauty she possesses and the creepy super of her motel home who has the prowess of a mountain lion. She is preyed on by men, society and the women who are jealous of what she’s taken away. The film never victim blames, saying Jesse brought this upon herself and her arc is coming into her own but extraneous forces either see her as as a threat or as meat. A woman is either sex or food Jena Malone as Ruby, Jesse’s new friend, implies which is a reflection of how society views the currency of beauty and youth. Los Angeles and the modeling industry are the perfect backdrop for these themes where female competition in a male dominated industry is at its most prominent.
Refn has such a control of the camera and mise en scene of the film that as I delve into the slightly negative aspects, I don’t want to detracted from the fact that he made a gorgeous and very intentional film. Nothing is out of place and much like the film opening with a long take of a frozen in time tableau, the film is equally as picturesque. Everyone is posing and keenly placed amidst the bright red and blue lights. As much as Refn is pointing out his talent as a filmmaker he’s intentionally pushing the boundaries of what we as an audience can sit through. With knife rape, necrophilia, cannibalism and pedophilia, there’s no shortage of things to make you squirm and hate that someone put this on screen but as I said, they all serve a purpose. I can’t always argue that they’re necessary because Jena Malone mounting a corpse because she can’t have sex with Jesse is gratuitous but other imagery like the graphic examples of consumption of beauty and asserting dominance sexually are unique and bold. It’s not something I could recommend to a layperson, unfamiliar of what to expect from Refn. It even shocked me. But for a film depicting a subject such as the corruption of innocence in an immoral city which is nothing new, I’m impressed with his unsettling approach. Jesse is an angelic figure but still flawed in her selfish ways and her female rivals (played by Bella Heathcote and Abby Lee) are pitted against each other because of a skewed, unfair society rather than the affections of a man which most films lean towards. They are still fighting for a patriarchy’s approval even if they don’t realize it.
There’s a lot to unpack from this film and I imagine it’ll be the subject of many film students’ mid term assignments. Like my theory is that the Neon Demon is Los Angeles, a city of lights, evil and nepotism. The friend who attended the screening with me argued it was Jesse after her transformation, specifically citing the scene where her innocent self and sinister self converge betwixt neon triangles in the dark hallway of the mind. The recent Refn films are deliberately dream like that allow for all these interpretations, freeing you from viewing it in such literal terms. Even with being an abstract film filled with gold paint and glitter porn, I appreciate that there is a story compelling it forward with interesting characters instead of being complete metaphor. The film plays with expectations of what you think characters are capable of from both men and women. It’s so purely a Winding Refn film yet it somehow seems unlike him due to the predominance of female characters and themes. It’s reflective of the strong writing team and brilliant cinematography by Natasha Braier. This movie doesn’t have the commercial appeal of his Gosling pictures but I liked the artistry and nuance for an All About Eve story. I’m willing to give more credit than I expected to Refn even if he may be an egotistical jerk. It’s Hollywood, isn’t it? That’s the game.