The Neon Demon (2016) by Nicolas Winding Refn
Review by Lydia Creech
“Beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”
Look at that, a movie that reviews itself. I am in no way against films where style is the substance, but Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film left me cold and disquieted. There is no doubt in my mind that every image put onscreen was exquisitely crafted, but for whom?
To back up and summarize the plot: Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a 16-year- old aspiring model. She has just moved to LA to try and make it in the fashion world, but soon finds that she is met with resentment from the other models.
“You are beautiful,” everyone tells her, and a part of me wonders whether Refn is making some cynical point about how people so often respond to his films (Full disclosure: Of his works, the only others I’ve seen are Drive and Only God Forgives, both of which I thought were pretty, had nice soundtracks, and nothing else, much like Neon Demon). By the end of the film, it seems she’s let all the praise go to her head, and the film soundly punishes her for it. This feels like a big “fuck you,” especially coming from a film that purports to take on the toxic nature of the fashion industry and beauty standards. I don’t need another message of “be beautiful, it’s the only thing that matters, but don’t you dare believe it yourself and own up to that power.” I would have thought the two women cowriters would have known better.
All of the ingredients are here for a picture that explicitly takes on gender, but what is it actually saying about it? We get that models are for the “male gaze,” to be consumed like “sex or food”; we get that women tear each other down for the sake of being the gazee; we get that youthful beauty is unfairly prized (like, implied 13-year-old rape prized), but why? For a film to be a “psychological horror,” it should actually get at the psychology of the characters. Actually, Refn’s style really gets in his own way on these points. Like Drive and Only God Forgives, the shot compositions and color palettes are immaculate and beautiful, but it is the alien, sexless beauty of high fashion, which… is not what this film needed, I think. When I think of the camera as a stand-in for the “male gaze,” I think of directors like Michael Bay, who use the lens to practically lick his female stars (I mean, look at the way it moves over Meghan Fox’s body). The audience is meant to be titillated, and thus are made complicit in the sexualization and exploitation of women’s bodies.
Refn, on the other hand, never invites the audience to salivate over Fanning, even though the film tells us over and over that we’re meant to. I know he brought in a woman DP, too, and surely this is an effect she would be aware of, so I’m sure it is intentionally cold and distant and fairly respectful, but it just doesn’t work. There’s no “in” to get the audience to engage and then pull the rug out from under them when the first image is literally Elle laying bloody on a divan. I’m not saying I wanted to see Fanning naked, but I’m wondering how we are supposed to believe the whole industry is disgusting and exploitative, if we are not made to be disgusted at ourselves.
Refn presents us with plenty of images meant to disturb and discomfort. I never felt that sense of creeping dread some reviewers did (a la horror films like The Witch or The Shining--ALSO, redrum lipstick?? PLEASE), but I was certainly uncomfortable. Just, not for the reasons I think Refn wanted me to be.
It’s not the what or how of the film that bothers me, it’s the why. I’m not sure what insight Refn has to say with this film, nor that Refn needed to be the one to say it. He has very artfully directed films dealing with the violence men inflict on each other, and his sense of style works well there. The sort of take down of the “strong, silent type” of masculinity that Refn explores in Drive and Only God Forgives benefit from his fetishization of violence and clinical compositions precisely because they provide some distance. However, when applied to a tale of the violence women inflict on women (as indirect violence men inflict on them), his usual visuals feel inappropriate.
I’ve heard it said Refn tries to elevate the exploitation picture to the level of high art by attempting to leave all the “trashy” genre trappings behind. I feel a bit bad, like I’m asking for a different film, when Refn so very clearly put his exact vision on the screen. However, perhaps it’s not “style over substance” with Refn, but certainly the style doesn’t fit the substance here.