by Jack Hawkins
The Neon Demon is the new film from Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish auteur best known for his blood-spattered fetishisation of Ryan Gosling. The film’s not released until 8 July, but I was fortunate enough to attend a preview screening and Q&A with Refn, or NWF as he’s now calling himself, at Manchester’s HOME cinema.
Let’s begin by saying that it is a marked improvement on his last work Only God Forgives, the Bangkok-set misfire which strew terrible characters, terrible dialogue and dull Oedipal metaphors over 90 tedious minutes.
For The Neon Demon, Refn has left Thailand and taken us back to Los Angeles, the sprawling city that Newton Thomas Sigel photographed so beautifully in Drive. Sigel hasn’t returned but Natasha Braier, his Argentine replacement known for her work on The Road, provides similarly dazzling visuals, from sweeping shots of the dusky Los Angeles basin to surreal and sparkling strobe-lit sequences.
Composer Cliff Martinez supports Braier’s sterling work in his third – and perhaps his best – collaboration with Refn. He has produced a goosefleshingly brilliant medley of industrial electronica that sends its heavy, menacing baselines thudding through your body. Indeed, Martinez has probably outperformed his director for the second time in a row.
At the centre of this audio-visual spectacle is Jesse (Elle Fanning), a wholesome young girl whose angelic, virginal beauty sends her hurtling to the top of the modeling industry, much to the catty chagrin of Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee).
Gigi has been cut, sliced and hammered into shape by LA’s most esteemed surgeons, and she’ll proudly tell anyone who listens. Heathcote’s outrageously defined jawline delivers much of her performance, but she also effectively creates an artificial wide-eyed façade that barely masks a desperate insecurity and venomous jealousy.
Rather than being artificial, Australian supermodel Abbey Lee is often just plain wooden as Sarah, the more overtly bitchy of the pair. Lee’s dollish face has an emotional vacuity that’s appropriate for the character, but her line delivery is regularly stilted. However, she does shine in a scene where she breaks down in front of Jesse, asking what it’s like to have that ‘thing’ that gets you noticed. Lee’s steady improvement is a reflection of Refn’s preference to shoot chronologically.
Gigi and Sarah are the primary antagonists of a toxic industry that wants to sink its teeth into young Jesse and suck all the life out of her. It is only Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist, who appears to have Jesse’s best interest at heart. But even Ruby’s intentions are dubious, as there are disconcerting sexual overtones to her friendliness.
Perhaps the greatest danger of all is Hank (Keanu Reeves), the thuggish sexual predator who runs the dodgy motel Jesse’s staying in. Sleaze sweats from every pore of Reeves’s gruff face as he leers and intimidates Jesse and Dean (Karl Glusman), an amateur and affable young photographer who Jesse has firmly friend-zoned.
All of these thoroughly malevolent individuals cast a menacing shadow over young Jesse. If she isn’t sabotaged Showgirls-style at work, she might be shanked to the sound of Bernard Herrmann’s strings in the motel shower. Despite this, it does not feel like a horror film, it’s really a warped social commentary, a bit like Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, only without the humour and scathing satire.
The Neon Demon becomes more of a horror film in the final 20 minutes or so, which is when everything falls apart. After about 90 minutes of preamble, Refn undoes the slow-burn tension with a lazy denouement that indulges his crude metaphors of the beauty industry’s ‘cannibalism’.
Fanning has said that the ending was created and improvised on set, and it really does show. Instead of remaining ground in reality, which the film generally does up until this point, Refn takes the easy route by falling back on viscera of the comically supernatural variety. Some Refn fans will sneer at such criticism and hark on about the grand symbolic value, but not only is the fashion industry an easy target for derision, but the metaphors are flat, too.
This is the problem with Refn – he’s prone to pseudo-intellectualism. For example, during the Q&A session he said that the main reason for making the film was to live out his fantasy of being a young girl, concluding with total certainty that ‘there is a 16-year-old girl in all of us’. Speak for yourself, Nick. He continued to delve into his strange brand of pop-psychology, dubbing himself as a ‘sadist’ in his profession but a ‘masochist’ in his home, because his wife and two daughters outnumber him. This is a pretentious and somewhat incestuous way of saying his wife wears the trousers.
He also spoke about directing Jena Malone in the film’s most sexually explicit scene, asking her to spit there and rub that. Some would say he was blurring the lines between film director and porn director, between Ron Howard and Ron Jeremy, but Refn said that ‘it was all okay, because we found her character together.’ This is such guff, Nick – you were getting off on it! Refn has, after all, confessed in the past that he’s a ‘pornographer’ who makes films based on what excites him.
Perhaps the most interesting thing Refn said during the Q&A was that he considers Richard E. Grant to be a ‘cunt’, which after seeing Withnail and I, is something I think I can agree with.
Thematically and metaphorically speaking, The Neon Demon is about as shallow as the industry it critiques. But Fanning’s endearing lead performance, Natasha Braier’s stunning camerawork and the ambience of Cliff Martinez’s score make it a film worth watching on the big screen, especially in Cinema One at the brilliant Manchester HOME.
Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
Scr: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Karl Glusman
Prd: Lene Borglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval, Nicolas Winding Refn (many others)
DOP: Natasha Braier
Music: Cliff Martinez
Country: France, USA, Denmark
Run Time: 117 minutes
The Neon Demon opens in cinemas on 8 July.